Gray Oaks Tree Plantation Named Forest Farm of the Year for 2021

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Robert Walker and Catherine Eastman manage Ohio’s 2021 Tree Farm of the Year, the Gray Oaks Tree Plantation. (Photo by Gail Keck)

BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio – A walk in the woods at Gray Oaks Tree Plantation proves that landowners don’t need large areas to maintain a variety of woodland habitats.

The 26-acre tree farm located just east of Bellefontaine, Logan County, has been named the 2021 Tree Farm of the Year by the Ohio Forestry Association and the Ohio Tree Farm Program.

“It’s not the typical tree farm of the year because of its size, but it well deserves the award,” said Steve McGinnis, state service forester with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The owners, Robert Walker and Catherine Eastman, have actively managed the land to establish a variety of woodland habitats, McGinnis explained.

“It appears to be the largest 26 acre wood in the entire state,” he said.

Green area

The land was previously part of a 350-acre tree plantation started in 1958 by the Rowland family, but most of it was destroyed with the construction of the Highway 33 bypass around Bellefontaine.

By the time Walker bought a remaining part of the forest farm in 1987, the trees had not been managed for years, he said. “It was obvious someone had planted them, but they were unfortunately overlooked.”

Walker began working with foresters to create plans to eradicate invasive species and thin out densely planted stands of trees. Now, with Eastman, Walker is working to encourage the growth of a wide range of tree species. Their goal is to nourish and protect their land as green space amid the development that surrounds them.

“Our green spaces are very important to humanity,” Walker said. “Without them, we cease to exist.

Oasis

The Gray Oaks tree plantation takes its name from the scenery Walker saw through his kitchen window on a winter’s day. The farm is bordered to the east by a busy four-lane highway, to the south and west by detached houses and to the north by a church.

Walker considers the tree farm to be an oasis for wildlife and humans.

“You can always maintain these green spaces near highways and facilities,” he said.

As green space shrinks, what is left will become more valuable, Walker said, but he and Eastman are not looking to cash in on their tree farm. Instead, they manage the land to improve the environment for people and wildlife.

“We’re not going to get rich because of it, but in our own way, we are rich,” he said.

Walker works as a facilities manager for the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center and enjoys relaxing evenings and weekends 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 see the farm as their vacation spot as well as their home.

Stewardship

The two share their interest in forest stewardship by organizing a field day each year for the fifth grade students of Bellefontaine. They work with foresters, soil conservators and wildlife experts to set up stations around the farm to teach students about invasive species, food webs, wildlife habitat, and other resource-related topics. natural.

These lessons tick the boxes for science learning objectives in grade five and also allow students to experience the wonders of the forest, Eastman said. Over the years, Walker and Eastman have worked with McGinnis and other foresters to develop management plans to guide their efforts.

They like to focus on one area of ​​the property at a time and then let that area rest and recuperate as they move to another location. Their organized and focused approach is part of what makes them exceptional as tree growers, McGinnis said.

When Walker began managing the land in 1987, it was mostly timber, but the woods did not provide the diverse wildlife habitat he wanted.

Past practices

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the land was part of a reforestation project to convert rugged, rolling pastures to forest. At that time, foresters recommended using monocultures and reduced spacing to quickly transform the landscape, Walker explained.

Many of the farm’s Norwegian oaks and spruce trees have been planted in narrow rows just 3 feet apart. This is not a practice that would normally be used nowadays, as such close spacing ends up stunting tree growth. Tree monocultures also provide limited habitat for wildlife compared to forests with various tree species.

One of the first steps was to eliminate the invading Amur Honeysuckle. In addition to crowding out native understory species, honeysuckle shrubs deplete the soil of nutrients and produce allelopathic compounds that inhibit the growth of other plants.

As a result, the soil under the shrubs tends to have poor vegetation cover, which can lead to soil erosion problems.

Walker and Eastman have used a variety of methods to eradicate honeysuckle, including cutting, spraying, and even mulching shrubs with a wood chipper. “We had to use it in some areas because it was so extreme,” Walker explained. Today, the tall honeysuckle shrubs are gone, but new honeysuckle plants still emerge every spring, Eastman added. “We shoot as we go. “

Good management

Removal of invasive shrubs and thinning of overcrowded tree stands allowed native ground covers, shrubs and understory trees to repopulate. But even these desirable species need to be managed, Eastman said. For example, spice bushes and native papayas themselves can become invasive.

In addition to managing their tree stands, Walker and Eastman have worked to improve wetland habitats on the farm. With help from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they converted a low lying area into a wooded wetland, which provides habitat for migrating waterfowl.

Another place with a natural spring has a shaded spring pool where salamanders flourish. Yet another poorly drained area is managed as a swampy meadow, where moisture-loving trees such as bald cypress, black walnut, and sycamore take root.

So far, they haven’t come close to running out of farm work, Walker said. Invasive species continue to grow, vines threaten to smother desirable trees, desirable species grow in unwanted places, branches fall, trees die, and more trees must be felled to allow the remaining trees to thrive.

Managing a tree plantation is not a job that never ends, he explained. “It is a work in progress.”

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