On a dusty slope of earth, high up in the eastern Cascades, logger Dave Elpi surveys a row of felled trees, adds fuel to his chainsaw, and lets it rip. Within a few minutes, branches are shorn from two trees, the trunks are cut into smaller pieces and the wood is ready for trucking back to his yard in Sisters to be sold as firewood and poles.
For Elpi, selling firewood is not an easy business. The hours are long, the work labor-intensive and the margins are thin. He describes his company — Sisters Forest Products LLC — as a “booming, stellar, non-profit organization.” But his reward is being able to contribute to forest health, plus some spectacular views every day.
“Isn’t this cool? Out of 50 years of doing this, this is one of the nicest places I have been,” said Elpi, hooking his thumbs into his suspenders and admiring the views of Broken Top and the Three Sisters Wilderness.
Elpi’s career as a logger in Oregon started in the 1970s. He used to fell trees for logging companies but in recent decades he has transitioned to a different kind of business, selling firewood and poles, mainly taken from forests burned by fire or infected with mistletoe. Instead of clear-cutting, Elpi is cleaning up damaged forests and protecting them from wildfire.
“I feel good that my little business has for 20 years been involved with active forest rehabilitation, instead of just logging for the mills,” said Elpi, clad in a baseball cap, striped shirt, and blue jeans. “We have a cool mission, to promote national forests for our grandchildren.”
Elpi is part of a network of small businesses, cooperatives, independent foragers, and woodcutters who make a living from products sourced in Oregon’s forests. They aren’t felling whole trees for the lumber mills, but rather they are collecting parts of trees — needles, cones, mistletoe, and boughs among other things. Besides tree products, there’s also herbs, ferns, mushrooms, nuts and berries.
The most successful foragers have years of experience under their belts. The best spots to collect mushrooms, truffles and other forest products are carefully guarded secrets. And when it comes to mushrooms, expertise is needed to identify which are safe to eat and which are toxic. But many are willing to invest that time and effort for both profit and love of the forests.
“In terms of forest products, there is a such a tremendous scale of items,” said Neil Schroeder, treasurer of the Oregon Woodland Cooperative, which has 75 members scattered across 15 Oregon counties.
What’s more, forest products are a sustainable resource, unlike mining or oil extraction. If collected in a way that allows regrowth, future Oregonians can still harvest forest products long after the Earth is picked clean of its oil, copper, coal, iron and other minerals.
Even wood, when taken in smaller amounts, is better for the environment than other building products, such as concrete and steel, says Elpi. And firewood is a renewable way to heat older homes.
“Wood is one of the very few sustainable resources that we have in this country,” said Elpi, whose latest project is a fire salvage operation for the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s a win-win situation. You can’t go wrong with wood as long as it's managed right.”
Elpi is not alone in this business — firewood sales help supplement incomes and pensions for many across the state, including members of the Oregon Woodland Cooperative. The cooperative has so far sold $200,000 worth of firewood this year.
But while firewood helps pay the bills, the Oregon Woodland Cooperative also produces distinctive products sourced from Oregon’s forests, including essential oils extracted from the needles of pine and fir trees. The oils have been turned into a variety of products, including beard wax and soaps.
“We are doing pretty well with it,” said Schroeder. “We are selling six or seven thousand dollars worth of essential oils every year.”
It’s not just the trees that produce wealth, other products worth collecting can be found on or under the forest floor, including mushrooms, truffles, herbs and shed antlers.
“There is just such a huge variety of ways that people derive income from the forests,” said Owen Rice, owner of Mycological Natural Products, which sells mushrooms, huckleberries, miner’s lettuce and other edible forest products. “If you put all the things together, the products from Oregon’s forests offer our residents far more income and benefits than just cutting the trees.”
Rice is unable to collect all the forest products on his own, so he relies on a small army of independent foragers who spend considerable amounts of time in the Pacific Northwest forests in search of mushrooms, berries, herbs, and other natural products. Permits are required for such activities, but otherwise it’s a livelihood with a low overhead. Many do it as a weekend pastime.
How many foragers are out roaming Oregon’s forests? That’s a hard number hard to pin down, says Eric Jones, an instructor at OSU’s College of Forestry. There are no official employment statistics, but he estimates the number to be in the tens of thousands.
While foraging can help pay the bills for some Oregonians, Jones makes it clear this work is never easy.
“It takes real skill and courage to walk off-trail for miles,” said Jones. “Some people die doing it but you have to try because you are always thinking about that glory patch just over the hill.”
One of the most popular items to search for is the matsutake mushroom — highly-valued in Japan due to its cultural significance. For the Japanese, gifting matsutake mushrooms shows great respect, and Oregon is a popular place for harvesting them.
Truffles are another locally sourced product sold here and across the country. Oregon truffles this year are selling for prices higher than French black truffles, said Charles Lefevre, owner of New World Truffieres, a Eugene-based company that sells truffles nationwide.
“Despite chefs thinking that everything French and Italian is superior, the Oregon truffles have really made a name for themselves,” said Lefevre.
But like many crops, the availability of forest products is weather-dependent and easily impacted by human activities. Some mushroom species, such as chanterelles, have been harder to find in recent years, because of clear-cuts.
Despite the challenges, foragers continue to enter the forests — baskets and trowels in hand. Some do it for a living, some do it for a little extra cash, but whatever their reason, all foragers enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
“I loved being outdoors and being my own boss. I think that is a common attitude,” said Jones, the OSU instructor, who collected mushrooms commercially in the 1980s.
“Was it hard work? Hell yes,” said Jones. “Was it amazing to walk 10 miles off-trail by myself deep into the woods all day? Hell yes. You don't get that experience hiking or logging or even tree planting.”