Through the Eyes of Others

Posted in Blog

Since 1986 the Hyla Woods team has been most fortunate to learn from visitors to the forests.

Some come from close at hand while others come from afar – including Chile’, Indonesia, France, Slovakia, England, Germany, New Zealand……  There is much that we learn from all of them.  While we learn from from their descriptions of the forests and forest stewardship in their homelands, we also learn from the ways in which they perceive what they find in our forests – seeing what is so familiar to us, through their eyes.  We’d like to share one recent example.

In the Fall of 2019, Richard Nairn, an Irish forester, traveled to Portland to visit his son and his family.  During a visit to the furniture showroom of The Joinery, when an employee learned of Richard’s interests, the suggestion was made to try to visit one forests from which Joinery furniture is made.  Late one afternoon, Peter replied to an email query from Richard with “how about tomorrow; I can pick you up at the downtown bus stop?”.  Somehow it all worked out, an interesting and enjoyable day of exploration and discussion followed, and an ongoing relationship was developed.  Richard followed up his visit by writing an article about the visit for an Irish forest publication.  We share the text below with the thought that you might join us in learning from the ways that an Irish forester perceives the forests of the Northwest and the experiments that he found here.

To learn more about Richard and his work, click here


Deep in the coastal range of mountains in the state of Oregon there is a unique group of forests that are being managed by one family in a way that harps back to the Native Americans who have called this place home for millennia.  The spokesman for the family is Peter Hayes, an educationalist, naturalist and forest manager who sees the forests not just as a source of timber for profit but as a multifunctional resource that can benefit a whole community.

I joined a group of forestry specialists on a walk around one of these forests at a time when maples and oaks lit up the woodland with beautiful yellow and red colours of the fall.  The dominant native tree here is the Douglas fir but these forest giants are quite different from the blanket monocultural conifer plantations that we see in Britain and Ireland.  For a start the trees are massive – up to thirty or forty metres in height – and with basal stems as wide as a door.   The autumn sunlight pouring through the forest canopy produces a diverse undergrowth with abundant regeneration of young native trees such as red alder, vine maple and Pacific yew.  Hayes explains that their approach is similar to continuous cover forestry in Europe where the thinning focusses on removing the weaker individual trees to give space and light for the better-quality specimens to prosper and grow. They also replant in the spaces to increase the diversity of the forest so that it will be more resilient to climate change and pathogens such as laminated root rot which has already hit the fir trees.  In fact, this enterprise only removes about 20 per cent of the annual growth in the forest leaving the majority of timber volume in the standing trees.

Because the local sawmills are not set up for processing all of the varied types and sizes of timber that Hyla Woods produces, the Hayes family has established its own small milling operation with a solar-powered drying kiln to finish the high-quality product.  They work with small scale customers who are prepared to pay a premium for sustainably harvested timber from an ecologically healthy forest. I paid a visit to one of these customers, The Joinery, in nearby Portland.  Here I met Martina Kaiwi who showed me the fine craftmanship that goes into making Hyla timber into finished products like unique polished tables and chairs as well as intricate wooden toys and decorative pieces.

Peter Hayes is just one of a long family line of foresters that goes back to his great-great-grandfather who logged timber in the forests of the eastern states.  He shows me old photographs of the loggers working with hand saws and axes to fell mature trees and the steam-driven winches that hauled the logs to the edge of the forest. Selling up and moving west, as the forests of the Pacific states were opened up, the family bought holdings that had been neglected over the years and introduced a type of forestry that aimed to improve the habitats, involve the local communities and provide an income for its members.  Sixteen decades later, Peter Hayes explains that his son, Ben, and daughter, Molly have now taken up the baton in this long-running relay.

Hayes has emerged as a local spokesman for creating forestry markets that recognize what he calls “high conservation value forestry.” These markets reward forest owners for ‘ecosystem services’ like preserving wildlife habitat, storing carbon and keeping waterways cool and clean. And they’re essential to allow small woodland owners like him to grow forests that are both ecologically complex and economically viable.  As we walked down the steep slopes, deeply marked with the tracks of elk, I could hear the sound of a creek running between the trees.  The water flows through a series of logpiles, some of which have been placed here to improve aquatic habitats, and other forest debris that has been washed down by frequent floods.  In December, the migratory Coho salmon arrive back to spawn in the gravels and pools of these headwater creeks and the Hayes family organises a local celebration here to welcome their return, just as the native tribes have done centuries before. And beavers have returned too, creating more natural dams and restoring the river to a sinuous channel.

Although this seems like a completely natural environment, Hayes explains that it is actively managed and that this intervention is a key to a healthy habitat.  “We run a profitable forestry business here”, he says, “but we define profit in a uniquely broad way. Our highest priority is to improve the health of the forest.  Our feeling is that, if we make a profit at the expense of the land then it is basically a form of theft”.  Their operation uses barely any herbicides, they thin groves out to allow more sunlight in with no clear-felling and, instead of a monoculture, they plant up to a dozen tree species to diversify the forest.   “What we want”, says Hayes, “is a forest with multiple species and trees of multiple ages. This an experimental project and our dream is to have a working model that shows how you can have a forest that is economically viable but not at the expense of losing the health and wealth of the land”.

A key to this experiment is recording accurately many aspects of the forests’ function.  There are regular stock assessments of the volume of standing timber in each plot of the 1,000 acres of forest.  Plant and bird species are carefully monitored and Hayes can reel off many tree species that have found their own way back to these forests. A committed educationalist, he hands me a list of research projects that have been undertaken by academics in these forests with results that feed straight back into his management methods.  He estimates too that the carbon being captured in these forests is increasing annually and is currently about fifty times the amount of carbon produced by his family business in a typical year. This is an outstanding example of sustainable forestry that is combining a healthy forest ecosystem and a viable business model with developing local markets for high-quality timber products.

Richard crossed paths with some of our citizen scientists.  He’s in the back row in the tan ball cap.