- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. (AP) - For more than a decade, since the black spots first began appearing on the branches of the filbert trees at the historic Dorris Ranch, officials at the local park district knew the time would come.

At some point, they understood, the regular scouting, pruning and spraying that slowed the advance of eastern filbert blight wouldn’t be enough.

The ranch’s owner, the Willamalane Park and Recreation District, would then need to take a terminal measure to retain the nation’s first commercial filbert farm - which continues to operate - for future generations.

That day has arrived.

Later this month, workers will begin cutting down about 1,400 of the ranch’s sickliest trees. In their place, starting this fall, workers will plant new trees that are resistant to the blight, a fungal infection that will eventually kill a tree it infests.

In nearly two decades’ time, under Willamalane’s plan to be rolled out in stages, new blight-resistant trees will replace about 7,300 existing trees at the ranch. The trees range in age from 59 years to more than century.

The park district will maintain for as long as possible one of the 11 orchards to preserve the legacy of George Dorris, the 258-acre ranch’s namesake who started the farm in 1903. The Road Orchard, located near the renovated barn by the entrance to the ranch, encompasses three acres and about 400 trees that grow filberts, or hazelnuts.

“It is sad, but what we’re trying to do is look at it as a positive,” said Vincent Martorello, the district’s planning manager. “We’re really taking our role as the public stewards of this property very seriously.”

The park district is seeking the public’s help to launch the ranch’s new era.

Willamalane estimates it will cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to replant the orchards and has launched a “Fight the Blight” fundraising campaign to raise money for the project. The park district also will use proceeds from filbert sales.

To jump-start the effort, Willamalane has joined with the National Recreation and Park Association on a crowd-funding initiative with a goal of raising $40,000 by April 27.

The move by Willamalane is hardly isolated. Farmers around the state are planting thousands of acres of new blight-resistant filbert trees at a time of strong market demand and high prices.

“There’s a lot of planting going on,” said Jay Pscheidt, professor of botany and plant pathology at Oregon State University.

It can take three to five years for the trees to grow enough to produce a big enough yield of nuts to justify the expense to harvest them, he said.

Most of the trees planted at Dorris Ranch were of the Barcelona variety, which is highly susceptible to the blight.

The first sign of the blight is the appearance of rows of black football-shaped stromata on the branches of the infected tree.

The blight can kill filbert trees in seven to 10 years, although the management practices Pscheidt and his colleagues developed can extend their life significantly longer.

Pscheidt said the blight arrived in the region in 1958, likely from infested nursery stock from the East Coast, but it wasn’t recognized for another decade.

The disease spread and threatened to wipe out the state’s hazelnut industry - Oregon produces about 99 percent of the nation’s crop - in the 1980s and ‘90s as it relied on varieties of filbert trees vulnerable to the fungus.

Eastern filbert blight was first reported in Lane County’s commercial hazelnut trees in August 2003, according to a story in The Register-Guard, and an infected tree was discovered near Dorris Ranch four months later.

The story noted that Willamalane had started a spraying and pruning program to fight off the inevitable invasion, but John Kraft, then the district’s park operations manager, said “the prospect is dire.”

Martorello said the district recognized the practices would slow the blight’s progress but not stop it.

The blight was able to advance following the snow and ice storm in February 2014 after the district skipped two cycles of spraying of fungicide due to the weather and extensive cleanup work at the ranch, Martorello said.

“It’s basically everywhere,” said Damon Crume, the district’s horticultural program manager.

The state’s historic preservation office has signed off on Willamalane’s plan, and the city is reviewing the district’s applications for tree-felling permits for the first-stage removal.

The first stage will cut down half of the trees in the 25-acre Walnut Orchard, which contains the first 50 trees planted by Dorris in 1903 and is where the blight was first discovered. It will remove all the trees in the five-acre Cannery Orchard, planted after 1950.

The five earliest orchards were planted at Dorris Ranch between 1903 and 1936, and the remaining six were planted between 1937 and 1957, according to the nomination form for the federal listing.

The ranch was listed on the federal and state historical registers in 1988.

Willamalane contracts with an orchardist to harvest the nuts and receives a share of the revenue that it puts into the fund that pays for the ranch’s operations and maintenance. The district received $53,000 from last fall’s harvest.

Lane Forest Products will cut down the trees. The trees will remain to dry and then be chipped up and hauled off for use as fuel in Seneca’s biomass plant.

In the fall, Willamalane will plant three new tree varieties, including Jefferson, which shares many of the same qualities of Barcelona but is resistant to the blight. Oregon State University researchers developed the variety and released it in 2009.

After the planting this fall, the district will care for the young trees over the next three years, and then prepare for the next stage of cutting and replanting.

“They’re being proactive and removing sections that will eventually be a hazard to the public (due to dead limbs),” Pscheidt said. “And by planting new ones, they can continue to keep it a productive ranch.”


Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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