Posted: Monday, January 21, 2013 9:57 AM
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Scott Ferguson picked a tough time to launch his career as a forester.
After graduating with a master's degree in forestry in the early 1980s, Ferguson found that industrial timber companies weren't hiring and the U.S. Forest Service was laying off people.
"We were sliding into a recession," he said.
Rising interest rates had deflated demand for housing, seriously disrupting the profitability of the forestry industry.
Ferguson found a mentor in a longtime Oregon forester, Dick Smith, who was focused on selectively harvesting individual trees rather than clear-cutting large swaths of forest.
"He was kind of a maverick," Ferguson said. "That appealed to me. I didn't come from an industrial background."
After Smith retired, Ferguson inherited his longtime clients, and he recruited more family woodland owners who wanted to profit from timber without sacrificing aesthetics and recreation.
His "light touch" strategy involves harvesting smaller patches of trees, leaving oaks and maples to enhance stand diversity and managing several ages of trees within the same area.
"It's a more fine-tuned, smaller-scale approach," said Ferguson.
The philosophy is a good fit for city and county governments that own forests but face conflicting demands on the land.
The City of Forest Grove, for example, owns 4,400 acres of forest from which it derives much of its water.
The city had halted management activities in the forest due to disagreements in the community about conservation versus logging, said Rob Foster, the city's director of public works.
More than a decade ago, Ferguson was able to craft a plan with a committee of residents that allowed for the preservation of water quality while bringing in roughly $400,000 a year in revenues from logging, Foster said.
"We couldn't get the sides to agree on anything. He kind of got us out of that jam," Foster said.
After working alone for many years, Ferguson decided to pool his talents and resources in 2006 with foresters Barry Sims and Mark Miller to form the Trout Mountain Forestry company.
"We were in the niche where people want a more balanced approach," he said.
Today, the company is composed of five foresters and an office manager, and manages roughly 30,000 acres, primarily in Oregon's Willamette Valley and the Coast Range.
At the time the company was founded, though, the new partners didn't know they were on the precipice of a downturn in the timber economy that rivaled the severe tumult of the 1980s.
As lumber and log prices crashed during the recent housing collapse, the family forest owners who are the company's "bread and butter" held off logging operations.
To keep busy, the company took on jobs that bring in money even if trees aren't being harvested -- assisting with conservation easements and restoration projects.
"That's helped us get through the housing slide," said Ferguson. "It's helped bridge the gap."
Restoration work involves helping landowners apply for grants and carrying out projects aimed at reviving habitats with thinning and planting native species.
Conservation easements involve a complicated process in which the landowner sells the right to develop property, often to a nonprofit land trust or a government agency like the Bonneville Power Administration.
Ferguson helps landowners figure out whether they meet the criteria, assists with the application process and develops a plan for managing land in the easement.
He also ensures the agreement doesn't contain provisions that will haunt landowners later on, such as restrictions that would prevent them from effective restoration and harvest activities.
"I broker the deal, basically," he said.
As with other real estate transactions, the company is paid based on a percentage of the deal's value.
It's a speculative way to make money, as landowners may decide to back out after Ferguson has invested significant time assisting with the agreement.
However, he finds completing a conservation easement a gratifying experience, knowing that the land will remain forested in perpetuity.
"Harvesting a tree is temporary, so it's nice to be able to contribute to that," Ferguson said.
Occupation: Forester and founder of Trout Mountain Forestry
Education: Bachelor's degree in botany and biology from Yale College, 1974, and a master's degree in forestry from Oregon State University, 1983
Family: Wife, Becky Nice, and two college-aged children
Hometown: Beaverton, Ore.