On Solid Ground

Jason E. Kaplan
Production of flooring tiles at Zena Forest Products in Rickreall

Airport project a showcase of Zena Forest Products

Share this article!

RICKREALL — No other wood is like Oregon white oak.

Oregon white oak in Zena Forest. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

For years settlers in Oregon considered it a “trash tree” and used it as firewood or fencing material. But Oregon oak is hard, waterproof and resistant to abrasion. It was good enough for the Vikings and other seafarers to use in their ships. And, fortunately for Ben Deumling, it’s plentiful in the Zena Forest.

Ben Deumling, owner and president of Zena Forest Products gives a tour of the forest and the saw mills in Rickreall, Oregon. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Today Deumling, his brother, his brother-in-law and his mother are the owners of Zena Forest Products, headquartered in the Zena private forest about 12 miles west of Salem. It’s one of the only surviving old-growth forests in the Willamette River Valley.

The short version of the Zena story is that the Deumling clan relocated from Germany around 30 years ago to care for property on behalf of an absentee owner. Over time neighboring parcels were added, and in 2008 the Deumlings purchased the majority of the land and secured a conservation easement, ensuring the Zena would be protected as a working forest in perpetuity.

Around that time, Ben Deumling, fresh out of college, moved back home and established the millwork and sawmill, which today employs nine people.

(Zena is a historic name somewhat shrouded in mystery. There is today a Zena Road nearby and a Zena Church, and that’s about all that survives of the town of Zena, aside from the forest.)

The forest has a unique ecosystem. Not part of the Coast Range, it’s situated in a series of dry, rocky hills in the middle of Willamette River Valley.

“Today it’s sort of an island of forest surrounded by farmland,” Deumling says.

Harvested white oak from Zena Forest. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

“There’s nothing wrong with the tree, it’s just it wasn’t Douglas fir, which was the main driver of our timber industry here in Oregon,” Deumling says of the white oak’s poor reputation. “So we built our own sawmill and millwork operation to capitalize on that value that we had in our forest.”

Zena Forest Products has produced flooring of Oregon white oak since the aughts.

Of particular interest to Deumling are young specimens of the tree around 5 to 7 feet in diameter. He reached out to ZGF Architects, lead designers of the airport terminal project, with an idea to produce an edge-grain panel using small pieces of young Oregon oak. Deumling knew similar products existed in Europe, and ZGF connected Deumling with German manufacturer Schroeder, which helped Zena develop a production line for manufacturing edge-grain panels in the U.S.

Flooring from Zena Forest Products. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Zena’s hardwood flooring panels will be featured front and center in high-traffic areas of the terminal.

Many of the trees that make up those panels were hand-selected by Deumling’s mother, Sarah, whom Oregon Business profiled in 2021 as she and other private forest owners registered a plan to re-assess the state severance tax, which would have been costly to small owners.

Ben Deumling is giddy over the impending opening of the new PDX terminal. Fortunately, he has an idea how his product will perform, at least for the first three years.

Three years ago, ZGF installed a section of Zena edge-grain panels under a TSA security checkpoint experiencing heavy daily use.

“It’s doing awesome,” he says of the panels. “I mean, they’re doing really great.”

Click here to subscribe to Oregon Business.