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.”
Then the future of the farm took another turn that would be almost unthinkable for Walter 25 years earlier.
“With this explosion of Utica shale I ended up signing a contract for an oil lease. I now have a well pad on my property. In August of 2014 construction of the well pad and well pad road began. They were drilling eight wells from Dec. 2014 through March of 2015 and fracking from April through June of 2015. The wells will probably be in production by this September. The pad is only about three acres but the property is so steep they had to cut down about 14 acres of trees for the pad and the 3,000-foot long road to get to the pad,” Walter said. “When you are trying to make a living off of growing trees, having a well pad and a road seems incompatible with that. But, the road goes halfway into the property and that has improved the access so much for the next timber harvest, which will allow me to sell the trees for more money. The property is long and skinny and for the last harvest in 2013 they had to drag each log out sometimes up to a mile to get it loaded on a semi. Now they can get semi trucks right there in the middle of the property and they will have literally days less time handling the logs. I am sure that will be reflected in the bidding process.”
The oil and gas production is generating additional, and unexpected, income from the land, and actually benefitting the property in many other ways, Walter said.
“I am super pleased. It has been a very high quality operation. There had been oil wells on the property back since 1899. There were some roads on the farm but now I have a road that is better quality than a lot of the township roads around here,” he said. “Chesapeake was the company that put the well in and I was very pleased with working with them. They listened to my concerns and really worked to reduce the size of the well pad. They honestly treated my land as well or better than I have. It wasn’t just lip service about caring about the best management practices. They really were doing it.”
With better access to his own land now, Walter has used the road and well pad as a new opportunity to achieve his goals for enhancing the property.
“I planted 4,000 native shrubs along the road and around the well pad. Chesapeake planted clover and grass in the disturbed ground because that rapidly keeps the erosion in check. Then I planted viburnum, chokecherry, sumac, dogwood, pussy willow — all native species that have flowers and berries for the birds and wildlife and that provide some beauty. It also gives a kick-start to the natural succession. The land here just wants to go back to trees and by planting these shrubs right now, I can take 10 or 15 years off of that succession process,” he said. “Wildlife is actually benefitting from the work of the oil companies on the farm. I’m seeing more deer and turkey because of the grass and clover patches. Red-tailed hawks and red-headed woodpeckers nested this spring within sight of the well pad as fracking was going on. There are birds all over the place. Nature has evolved with constant changes so as long as you are not paving over the property you are benefitting something with these changes. I see a lot of misinformation in the media that is completely opposite of my experience with the oil and gas companies. The environmental impacts of gas and oil are grossly exaggerated in media and just not accurate.”
In addition, Walter is enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program for maintenance of invasive species control using integrated pest management techniques, and wildlife habitat improvement practices. The farm has been certified since 1994 by the American Tree Farm System.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.”