ELIZABETH, Pa. — Raul Chiesa and Janet Sredy began a 110-acre tree farm in western Pennsylvania about seven years ago. They never dreamed the journey would include the honor of National Outstanding Tree Farm of the Year.
Chiesa was a physician in New York City and Sredy was a microbiologist. They lived in the city during the week and in the Adirondack Mountains on the weekends.
Those weekends fed the married couple’s desire to be away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Then, as Sredy’s parents got older, the desire to get out of the city was even stronger.
So the couple, and Sredy’s brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Patty Sredy, took on land that had been in the family since 1920, calling it Beckets Run Woodlands, so named because it is located in the state-designated Beckets Run Biodiversity Area.
It was Janet Sredy’s great-grandfather’s farm, but it had been split into 10 deeds, and then divided seven ways in the 1960s. The Sredy family had only five parts of it, and ultimately waged a court battle to get the rest. As a result, the seven deeds making up the family farm are once again in the Sredy family as one property.
Sredy and Chiesa met with a forester three weeks after closing on the Beckets Run Woodlands property, and they worked to get the property certified as a tree farm.
Not long after, they were certified in the American Tree Farm System and enrolled in the U.S. Forest Service Forest Stewardship program with the support of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry.
The couple decided to invest in a system-based forestry management plan. Their goal was to sustain the forest that was there and grow its ecosystem through proper management. They worked with the county, and eventually the state forester, to create a plan for their tree farm.
“It’s not just about having a plan. It’s about assuring the plan is being followed,” said Chiesa.
Chiesa said the certification of Beckets Run Woodlands is an assurance that the couple is doing what they say they are going to do with the trees. Their plan is an ecosystem based plan, which includes managing for rare plants found on the property.
The couple helped to build the native ecosystem and eradicated invasives and planted species that provided food for wildlife.
But they also realized they needed to find a way to generate income to pay for the farm, so they developed a wildlife habitat plan that includes hunting leases.
The hunting leases help pay the annual operating costs, including taxes, insurance and the accountant.
“It’s a good opportunity to get the deer down. We have about 30 deer per one square mile,” said Chiesa.
But the journey didn’t end with getting certified or finding a way to pay the taxes or insurance. Beckets Run Woodlands is gaining state and national accolades — the Pennsylvania Tree Farm of the Year in 2014, the Northeast Region Tree Farm of the Year in 2015 and the National Tree Farm of the Year in 2015.
The awards recognize the couple’s forest stewardship, and their work in improving the property, which was severely damaged due to poor agricultural practices, air pollution, vandalism and fractured ownership.
“Being recognized as tree farmers is empowerment,” said Sredy.
The couple didn’t stop with the plan of action for improving the land and environment. They have found value in other areas as well.
The couple learned a Dominion Gas pipeline was proposed for their property, running from West Virginia to Pennsylvania. They also discovered it was put on the fast track by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because it would be co-located with an existing pipeline, meaning the new pipeline would be installed close to an existing pipeline.
So the couple entered a comment to FERC during the comment period. The response was that FERC told Dominion they would have to work with them since they are a certified tree farm.
Chiesa said there were 900 landowners impacted by the pipeline, however there was only one certified American Tree Farm, and that’s the one FERC said a plan was needed.
Dominion set out to a write a plan of action with the farm managers to limit invasive species from entering the property through equipment and tires, and they would set up a staging area to limit the damage.
The pipeline company would spray for invasive species, replace trees cut down, build wildlife habitat and install gates to the property.
“It’s not about saying, it’s doing,” said Chiesa.
The company complied with the regulations Beckets Run Woodlands wanted and went a step forward and asked Sredy and Chiesa to help them develop a plan for the property they owned next to the tree farm.
Chiesa believes having the tree farm certification pushed FERC into recognizing the tree farm has a value, and he hopes the concept will help drive forestry in Pennsylvania.
“Landowners need a plan, and they need to get certified,” said Chiesa.
Now, Chiesa is serving as the only landowner and tree farmer on the Pennsylvania governor’s pipeline task force.
He said the state of Pennsylvania has 15 percent of the pipelines planned already, with the remaining 85 percent to be constructed within 20 years.
Most of the pipeline construction will not be federally, but state regulated, which is why the task force was created.
The task force is in charge of setting best management practices for the pipelines constructed in Pennsylvania.
Beckets Run Woodlands has also set a precedent in the Pennsylvania court system for other tree farmers who are dealing with trespassers.
When the couple took over the farm, recreational groups would ride all-terrain vehicles on the property and the neighbor’s property without permission. Groups would communicate through the Internet to set up weekend rides through the property.
The couple tried talking with the groups but were unsuccessful. Eventually, it ended in criminal charges and a lengthy court battle, but Beckets Run Woodlands was able to stop the riders. In addition, the case resulted in a court settlement that was used to create a scholarship for a high school or college student studying natural resources.
Sredy and Chiesa set out to better the land — what they didn’t expect were the rewards they would reap in the process.
“We are using our certification as an instrument. It’s an assurance we are doing what we say we are going to do,” said Chiesa.
To Chiesa and Sredy that means continuing their work to renew and rebuild their tree farm, and being an example to others who want to learn about bringing the woodlands back to life.