BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio — A walk through the woods at Grey Oaks Tree Plantation proves that landowners don’t need vast acreages to nurture diverse woodland habitats.
The 26-acre tree farm just east of Bellefontaine, in Logan County, was named 2021 Tree Farm of the Year by the Ohio Forestry Association and the Ohio Tree Farm Program.
“It isn’t the typical tree farm of the year because of its size, but it’s very deserving of the award,” said Steve McGinnis, state service forester with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Owners, Robert Walker and Catherine Eastman, have actively managed the land, to establish a variety of woodland habitats, McGinnis explained.
“It seems like the largest 26-acre woods in the whole state,” he said.
The land was previously part of a 350-acre tree plantation started in 1958 by the Rowland family, but most of that was destroyed with the construction of the U.S. Route 33 bypass around Bellefontaine.
By the time Walker bought a remaining piece of the tree farm in 1987, the trees had been unmanaged for years, he said. “It was obvious someone had planted them, but they were sadly neglected.”
Walker started working with foresters to create plans for eradicating invasive species and thinning the densely planted tree stands. Now, along with Eastman, Walker works to encourage growth of a wide range of tree species. Their goal is to nurture and protect their land as a green space amidst the development that surrounds them.
“Our green spaces are very important to mankind,” Walker said. “Without them, we cease to exist.”
Grey Oaks Tree Plantation got its name from the landscape Walker saw out his kitchen window one winter day. The farm is bordered on the east by a busy four-lane highway, on the south and west by suburban housing and on the north by a church.
Walker considers the tree farm to be an oasis for both wildlife and people.
“You can still maintain these green spaces near highways and development,” he stressed.
As green spaces keep dwindling, those that remain will become more valuable, Walker said, but he and Eastman aren’t looking to make a financial profit from their tree farm. Instead, they’re managing the land to enhance the environment for both people and wildlife.
“We are not going to get rich off of this, but in our own way, we are rich,” he said.
Walker works as the facilities director for Ohio Hi-Point Career Center and he likes to relax in the evenings and on weekends by working in the woods.
Eastman works as an elementary school teacher in Bellefontaine, so in addition to evenings and weekends, she has time in the summer to work in the woods. They both consider the farm to be their vacation spot as well as their home.
The two share their interest in forest stewardship by hosting a field day each year for Bellefontaine fifth-grade students. They work with foresters, soil conservationists and wildlife experts to set up stations around the farm to teach students about invasive species, food webs, wildlife habitat and other topics related to natural resources.
Those lessons check the boxes for fifth-grade science learning objectives and also let students experience the wonder of the woods, Eastman said. Over the years, Walker and Eastman have worked with McGinnis and other foresters to draw up management plans to guide their efforts.
They like focusing on one area of the property at a time, then letting that area rest and recover while they move to another spot. Their organized, focused approach is part of what makes them exceptional as tree farmers, McGinnis said.
When Walker started managing the land in 1987, it was mostly woodland, but the woods did not provide the diverse wildlife habitat he wanted.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the land had been part of a reforestation project to convert rough, hilly pasture land to forest. At that time, foresters recommended using monocultures and close spacing to quickly transform the landscape, Walker explained.
Many of the oak and Norway spruce trees on the farm were planted in narrow rows just 3 feet apart. That’s not a practice that would ordinarily be used these days because such close spacing eventually stunts tree growth. Tree monocultures also offer limited habitat for wildlife compared to woodlands with diverse tree species.
One of the first steps was eliminating invasive amur honeysuckle. Besides crowding out native species in the understory, honeysuckle shrubs deplete the soil of nutrients and produce allelopathic compounds that inhibit the growth of other plants.
As a result, soil beneath the shrubs tends to have little ground cover, which can lead to problems with soil erosion.
Walker and Eastman have used a variety of methods to eradicate the honeysuckle, including cutting, spraying and even shredding the shrubs with a forestry mulcher. “We had to use that in certain areas because it was that extreme,” Walker explained. Today, the large honeysuckle shrubs are gone, but new honeysuckle plants still emerge every spring, Eastman added. “We pull as we go.”
Removing the invasive shrubs and thinning overcrowded tree stands has allowed native ground covers, shrubs and understory trees to repopulate. But even those desirable species need to be managed, Eastman said. For instance, native spicebushes and pawpaws can themselves become invasive.
In addition to managing their tree stands, Walker and Eastman have worked to improve wetland habitats on the farm. With the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they converted a low-lying area into a wooded wetland, which provides habitat for migratory waterfowl.
Another spot with a natural spring has a shady vernal pool where salamanders flourish. Still, another poorly drained spot is being managed as a meadow marsh, where moisture-loving trees such as bald cypresses, black walnuts and sycamores are putting down roots.
So far, they haven’t come close to running out of work on the farm, Walker said. Invasive species keep sprouting, grapevines threaten to smother desirable trees, desirable species sprout in undesirable spots, limbs fall, trees die and other trees need to be culled to allow remaining trees to thrive.
Managing a tree farm is not a job that is ever finished, he explained. “It’s a work in progress.”
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