Eighteen years ago my wife and I became the owners of forty-two acres of land in the southern piedmont of Virginia. Partly by kindness and being in the right place at the right time (which I call being blessed), we were able to buy this tract of rolling hills, complete with small spring fed perennial stream, beaver swamp and over thirty acres of then twenty year old loblolly pine in sore need of thinning. Suddenly at the age of 40, I was on the private landowner’s end of wildlife and timber management.
There were no fields on our land, so we had to mark out a home building site, find a logger to cut such a small piece, then a dozer operator to clear stumps, and so on. Over the course of several years we worked all week at work and then worked all weekend at home, raking rock, sowing grass, and spreading over 125 bales of wheat straw – twice. I cleaned the entire 1.5 acre yard with a hand rake and slowly made other uses of the rocks that seemed to sprout after every rain storm. Looking at it now, you’d never imagine the work that went into it. And that was a realization I had about all the landowners I had visited in the past, and more importantly was yet to visit. How much work they put into their land. It’s when I started beginning and ending every conversation I have with landowners by complimenting their property.
An initial step upon acquiring this land was to reach out to a forestry consultant I had known since he and his wife came to Virginia in the late 90s. He developed a long term forest management plan that involved two thinnings and a final cut. They also coordinated the sales and harvests that occurred through fall 2019 when the final cut was completed (36 year old loblolly).
During the course of the pine thinning operations, I did things for wildlife where I could with what I had. I planted a brown top millet and buckwheat cover crop on my logging deck soon after thinning was completed in late June. I had no tractor or disk so could not prepare the soil properly. Some said nothing would grow there, but with ample wood chips spread fairly evenly over the deck, and the dozer tracks still fresh, helping to hold seed and moisture, the cover crop did great. The following March I contacted a seed supplier and bought 25 lbs. of “floor sweepings.” They said “We can’t guarantee you exactly what is in it except it is native and 99% weed free.” I sowed it with a walk behind yard seeder, then covered it with 75 bales of wheat straw and hoped for rain. I got bergamot, partridge pea, flat-topped white aster, tickseed sunflower along with big bluestem, Indian grass and little bluestem…and ragweed galore. Another lesson for me – there may be a best way to do things, but there is more than one way…sometimes you just have to improvise.
I also stopped mowing several parts of my yard that I had been mowing for no reason. By spraying the fescue and allowing nature to work, the kind of thicket cover songbirds, quail and woodcock need soon developed (it’s magic). I now had thickets next to my wildflower and native grass field.
Then came the final harvest (at least in my lifetime). Being surrounded by tall pines for so long, the view after harvest was liberating. Having come from the mountains, I could now see them off in the distance – the tops of “Three Ridges” rise up, and if the sun angle is right we can see reflecting rays off the houses at Wintergreen over 50 miles away.
Logging is a less than aesthetic endeavor. But in most cases it is the beginnings of a “young forest” to use a phrase coined by conservationists who value early-successional habitats. I don’t like to get into discussions about what things looked like during the Pleistocene epoch. I prefer to focus on the future and what I’d like things to look like in fifty years when my daughter might consider the value of the land as she approaches retirement. And now we get to the core of every landowner site visit – their goals.
I looked at this land and talked to myself like I might talk to landowners. “Marc – what are your goals for this land? Are you going to need a return on it soon? Or is money not the primary issue? Do you have a vision for this land in 40 or 50 years?” I made the decision early on to let it lay fallow for one full growing season and part of another before doing anything other than stabilizing logging roads. This gave me time to think and provided for quail and many other early successional species – which showed up that first summer.
I knew I wanted to replant trees on most of it. I also knew that mixed short-leaf pine and hardwood stands are in decline across their range. I looked into and applied for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s forestry practices. My project didn’t fare well under ranking the first year. My NRCS District Conservationist suggested we try through the wildlife program this year. My project application included replanting with short-leaf pine, timber stand improvement cuttings in four acres of bottomland, leaving hardwood riparian buffers along my creek, a small wildlife shrub planting, and establishing some forest roads and trails for access. To my surprise, my project squeaked in. A couple landowners canceled their projects moving mine up to make the cut. I would have done some of this without the program’s assistance, but would not have been able to afford all of it. New landowner lesson – reach out to three people quickly, your county forester, your wildlife biologist and your NRCS District Conservationist – their help is free.
I began my project by flagging riparian buffers along my creek not to be site preparation sprayed (herbicided prior to planting the pines). I will manage these by select cutting and spot spraying as needed to keep them in yellow poplar, red maple, sour wood, and devils’ walking stick for pollinators – keeping out ailanthus, volunteer pines, and other hardwood competitors. I discovered a nice grove of chinquapins, too. I flagged an area around them for spray avoidance. I will manage them in the future with a very small prescribed fire (< ¼ acre – using hand cut fire lines).
Out of pocket I hired a dozing contractor to clear my logging deck of three harvests worth of debris. I again started from ground zero with a cover crop of buckwheat planted in July. I was sowing seed before the dozer was out of sight down my driveway. I followed this up in September by top sowing a winter crop of wheat, rye, crimson clover and various other seeds in a “pre-packaged store bought” mix. And this March I plan to plant half of it to a little bluestem and wild flower mix. The other half I will reserve for annual food plot plantings.
The deer, dove, quail and songbirds are already using the reclaimed logging deck – which has as much fox tail millet on it as it does anything I planted. During September I routinely had 30 to 40 dove using it (I did not hunt them – it was too close to baiting for my tastes – the doves were not just eating the planted buckwheat seed, but also the wheat seed I had recently top sown). One morning in late October, I heard two coveys of quail at 6:57 a.m. doing their fall Koi-lee call. Always about 20 minutes before sunrise, and lasting only briefly, the fall covey calls are a great way to get a rough estimate of how many coveys you have. This winter I’ll have woodcock using my riparian buffers and thickets. With time the land will change, the pines and hardwoods will grow and the natural progression of things will continue, though slightly modified by my management choices. The quail will leave, the deer will stay, and other animals will show up as the habitat suits them. Whether I’ll live to see the pines grow tall enough to block my view again is doubtful. But it matters little as I can already envision the land as it will be. In my mind’s eye I see my daughter and her family walking the trails I made along the creek, or standing up in the wildlife clearing looking out over the mixed short-leaf pine and hardwood forest – one very similar to what was here “back then.” And my small part was nothing more than a little nudging of it and the privilege of caring for it for a few years. And I have looked at it, and thought about it, and cherished it, and have done what is right by it.