By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
NORTH POWDER The Heffernan family of North Powder Chris and Donna and sons Justin and Sheldon are just one step away from being named National Tree Farmers of the Year.
Last Saturday, they agreed to show two school buses full of visitors why they are in the running for the award.
The Heffernans and their North Slope Natural Resources have won statewide and regional competitions for managing the forestlands on their 1,472-acre ranch outside North Powder, where they also raise dairy-quality hay and provide spring pasture for cattle.
Now they're set to square off against three competitors for the national title, which will be announced next month.
andquot;They've got a great chance,andquot; said Paul Oester, OSU Extension Forester for Union County.
The Heffernans are Oregon's 14th regional Tree Farmer of the Year winner, the most of any state, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Saturday's tour, which attracted more than 50 visitors, included five stops on and near the Heffernans' two parcels near Pilcher Creek Dam. It culminated with an evening barbecue and the announcement that the locals were on to the national competition.
andquot;It's humbling and flattering at the same time,andquot; Chris Heffernan said. andquot;There are lots of people doing what we are without the recognition.andquot;
The first stop along the tour showcased a 140-acre parcel the family just purchased two months ago. Here beaver dams dot the Pilcher Creek drainage area; Chris Heffernan figures more beaver activity will attract even bigger game looking for water.
andquot;It's gonna be an elk nursery,andquot; he figures, adding that the parcel is also home to woodpeckers and spotted frogs. That despite the fact that fully one-third of the trees have been recently harvested. About 45 of the 140 acres are covered in timber.
andquot;They say that blue skies, clean water and clean air all have value,andquot; Heffernan said during the tour. andquot;We're in a position to see whether that's true or not.andquot;
Along the tour, the couple ticks off state and federal agencies and private groups that have helped fund some of their initiatives, including the Oregon departments of Forestry and Fish andamp; Wildlife, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Oregon Water Enhancement Board and the Oregon State University Extension Service.
andquot;I want you to call me if you want to know anything about any of their programs,andquot; Donna Heffernan told the tour group. andquot;I feel like by now we know something about every state and federal program available.andquot;
One of those programs was on display at the second stop, where the Heffernans' property runs along the boundary of the ODFW's Elkhorn Management Area. There Eddie Miguez and crew feed between 1,500 and 2,300 elk each winter to keep them out of neighboring farms and ranches.
In exchange for a state Access and Habitat grant, the Heffernans leave the third cutting of their 100 acres of alfalfa to the elk.
andquot;It's been lovely to have the ODFW as our neighbor,andquot; Donna Heffernan said. andquot;Not only do they put up with Chris' harebrained ideas, but they make it easier for us to make the improvements we want.andquot;
One way to reciprocate for the help, her husband said, is to offer tours. Another is to allow hunters from service veterans to women and children to hunt on their property, using an ODFW-issued landowner hunting tag.
One man gave his 81-year-old World War II-veteran father-in-law one of the coveted tags, and the Heffernans allowed him to hunt on their property.
andquot;On Thanksgiving morning, that 81-year-old veteran harvested his first elk,andquot; Chris said. andquot;He was dancing a jig he was so happy. It was very fulfilling to me to provide that kind of opportunity for him in a safe environment.andquot;
Stop three along the tour was a ponderosa pine stand between 80 and 120 years old. Management problems in this stand included bark beetles and dwarf mistletoe in the overstory, Chris said. A commercial thinning is planned, but not until market conditions improve. The goal is to leave enough trees to allow overstory cover for the elk, he said.
At this stop Heffernan showed a pond that had been put in during the 1940s by andquot;an old-timer,andquot; then redug two years ago by andquot;an artist with a Cat,andquot; as Heffernan described him. The pond is connected by irrigation pipe to a solar-powered pump near the family's residence so that neither spot, in theory, will ever go dry.
Around the pond Heffernan also pointed out lay-down fences that require a little extra springtime maintenance but are easy for wildlife to leap over once the livestock grazing is complete. Between 400 and 450 cow-calf pair graze the area each spring.
andquot;They're my fire crew,andquot; he says. andquot;You graze them early and get them out, and the grass doesn't grow so high.andquot;
At 18 feet deep, the pond is deep enough for a firefighting helicopter to draw the water it needs, he said.
The crowd made two other stops before enjoying the barbecue. One was a mixed-conifer forest where a recent commercial thinning process is under way. The last was the aforementioned solar panel that serves multiple needs pumping water from a 260-foot well for watering livestock and wildlife and controlling fire.
Saturday's tour was sponsored by the American Tree Farm System, Oregon Department of Forestry, OSU Extension Service, Boise Cascade LLC, and the U.S. Forest Service.