CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER TREE HUGGER

September 2, 2015 xmas-tree-close-up2

By: Ohio’s County Journal

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Alan Walter refers to himself as a “tree hugger” when he first purchased his hilly, heavily wooded property in Harrison County.

“I bought this 150-acre farm in 1990 because I was looking for a place to mushroom hunt. I had always liked nature and liked being in the woods, but at that point I really had no idea what I was going to do with the property. At that stage in my life I was a member of Greenpeace and more of a tree hugger type of person who wanted to preserve the trees and keep them from being cut down,” Walter said. “I was a computer engineer and I worked in Canton for 30 years doing a variety of software projects. I had no outdoor experience other than some hiking and mushroom hunting with my dad when I was growing up. Since I bought this farm, it has really been a shift in my attitude as far as understanding what is happening on the land.”

As a new farm owner, Walter quickly set to work learning what he could about how to best care for his Sycamore Hill Tree Farm. He found the learning curve as steep as his newly purchased hillsides.

“I just started calling anyone I thought I could get good advice from — OSU Extension, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Soil and Water Conservation District, the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Many of those groups sent someone to the farm and pointed me in the right direction. The most helpful was the ODNR Division of Forestry Service Forester Randy Clum,” Walter said. “I had a really severe grapevine infestation at that time. The vines can make the trees unmarketable for lumber because they distort the trees’ shapes and rob sunlight causing the trees to die prematurely. The woods had been very heavily logged in the early 1970s and that had opened up a window for the grapevines to overtake the woods. I spent close to 10 years just getting grapevines under control.”

After the painstaking removal of the grapevines, Walter discovered that his work was just getting started.

“With the sunlight that was reaching the forest floor after I removed the grapevines, all the multiflora rose seeds came pouring forth. I spent another 10 years trying to kill the multiflora rose,” Walter said. “So, I was 20 years in and all I had done was try to get it back under control.”

With all of the time Walter spent in the woods, he had plenty of opportunities to ponder his long-term objectives for the property. He wanted to manage the woods to produce big trees (but he still wasn’t planning to sell any), improve water quality, stabilize the soil, increase wildlife and plant diversity, and improve the aesthetics. With these goals in mind, Walter found himself implementing management practices and making on-farm decisions that would have been unthinkable during his former “tree hugger” mindset.

The change in his attitude began after Clum convinced him to attend a monthly meeting of the East Central Ohio Forestry Association (ECOFA).

“I’ve learned you can achieve a multitude of goals simultaneously while managing a woodland. You can make money while still having a very nice woods to enjoy,” Walter said. “Now instead of just having a goal to ‘grow big trees’ my goal has been refined to say ‘high-quality sawlog or veneer-quality timber.’ I have found that I can actually grow big trees faster by cutting down the competition. I started cutting down some of the trees to add value to the remaining trees. The consulting forester said that some of these trees I was cutting were large enough to make money instead of letting them rot on the ground. So I had a timber harvest in 2013 and it was an improvement cut to undo the damage of the past poor forestry practices. They were mostly red maple and black cherry. It wasn’t a big money maker, but I am very happy with the quality of the woods now.

“I also learned that early successional habitat is almost an endangered ecosystem in Ohio — this shrubby habitat that is really good for migrating warblers in the spring and fall, woodcock and grouse. I don’t hunt, but I am interested in watching birds. So, to enhance wildlife habitat, I did this clearcut of about three acres of trees in the fall of 2013 to ‘reset the clock’ for about 15 years to benefit some birds. When I first bought this property I would have scoffed if you told me that someday I would be cutting down trees and certainly never could have foreseen that I’d intentionally do a clearcut.”

Walter was named the 2015 Ohio Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year by the Ohio Tree Farm Committee and is hosting the Tree Farm of the Year Tour on Sept. 19 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. He has over 50 presentations and hikes scheduled throughout the day. Please RSVP at ohtf2015@gmail.com or call 614-212-3309 for additional information.

“Rather than being concerned about cutting trees down, I am now concerned about invasive species. The woods, whether young or old, big or small, is the right habitat for some mix of species. The competition from things that are not native is what is causing the problems,” Walter said. “Nature is so resilient. Cutting down a tree is not really a bad thing. Even without the oil and gas income, the next timber harvest will pay for this farm. It a profitable venture with the timber, but you have to be in it for the long haul.”

By: Ohio’s County Journal

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