In his own words, landowner Frank Winkler describes a few of the lessons he’s learned caring for his Catskill Mountains property, including advice on timber harvesting, improving wildlife habitat, dealing with property taxes, and much more. MyWoodlot extends a big “Thank You” to Frank for sharing his story with us.
My woodlot has been an important part of my life from a young child going on hikes to 60 years later taking my grandchildren on expeditions to see deer or bear. In between there have been hundreds of hours spent hunting with family and friends, doing timber stand improvement, having two rewarding timber sales, and just escaping to enjoy nature.
I have tried to share my years of observation and action in this article. I’m not a professional forester, but I’ve seen and learned a great deal over the years at my 110 acres on Dingle Hill. This is a very special place to us here in the Town of Andes on the northwest side of the Catskill Mountains.
My parents bought the land in 1944 as part of a 220 acre farm with a barn, garage, shed, and house foundation for $4,200. One of the first actions was to sell timber to one of the many local sawmills to offset the cost of lumber to build a house. Another timber sale was made in the mid-50s to help feed a growing family.
The farm was a productive 30 cow dairy until 1973 when my dad retired. Several property lots were then sold to support them in retirement.
When my parents passed away my three sisters and I divided the remaining property between ourselves. We did this always with the clear direction instilled in us by our mother: “Never fight.” We each paid our mortgage into a family partnership for the land we purchased. From there funds were evenly divided back to each of us. I bought the back half of the farm including most of the woodlot.
My steep woodlot varies in elevation from 1,800 to 2,560 feet with predominantly a northeast exposure. The sun sets early, and it’s the coldest part of the neighborhood in the winter. Soils are productive, but can be shallow to bedrock. The mainly poletimber stand at the time of purchase was dominated by white ash with sugar maple, red maple, black cherry, beech, yellow birch, basswood, and a few red oak along with the typical small “shrub” trees.
Forest Tax Law Program (480-a)
Land values have climbed rapidly and so have property and school taxes. The NYS Forest Tax Law Program 480-a has been a significant help in reducing my tax burden.
It is not an easy program to comply with, but with about an 80% reduction in taxes on forested land, you have to expect a commitment in time and money to participate. Don’t get into the program if you aren’t willing to make a long term commitment: penalties to get out early are painful.
Being in 480-a has been easier on me since I can do my own Timber Stand Improvement (TSI) work, which is required by the program. I now stress heavy cull removal when I have a timber harvest so that I reduce the need for future TSI.
My tax savings from being in 480-a are substantial. In 2015 I had 93 acres enrolled. Without 480-a, property and school taxes on that land would have been $32.70/acre. With 480-a, I paid $8.78/acre. Over the full 93 enrolled acres, I save more than $2,200 each year by being in 480-a.
Timber Stand Improvement
I started doing TSI work in 1974 as an unemployed college grad. I’ve never stopped. It’s not hard to do improvements with a chainsaw once you know your trees. Most of us will leave too many trees for ideal growth, but it will still push good growth to the best trees. Always start working in the area with the most potential. I have dropped hundreds of trees to decompose on the forest floor. This work helped seedlings regenerate, helped wildlife, and resulted in no residual tree damage from heavy equipment. I have had successful timber harvests because of the TSI I have done over the years.
My hours of TSI work in the woods have had their financial rewards. I have had two successful timber sales managed by my forester. He marked and measured each tree, developed a bid, and sent it out to dozens of potential bidders. After bids were received and the winner selected, my forester prepared a written contract with performance requirements. These included things like landing site location, protected areas, time constraints, insurance requirements, waterbars, stream crossings, cleanup, and seeding. Full payment had to be made before any harvesting. The forester held a $5,000 bond until everything was completed as planned.
During a harvest, develop a good relationship with the logging crew. Let them know you care about your woods and about their welfare. Mutual respect goes a long way toward attaining everyone’s goals.
1997 Timber Sale
It was decided that my stocking rate was too high for good timber growth. Too many crop trees were competing for sunshine, though the biggest trees seemed like they should still put on size. A harvest was planned to reduce competition. 457 crop trees and 45 cull trees were removed totaling 80.9 MBF (Thousand Board Feet). There was an almost equal mix of white ash, hard (sugar) maple, and black cherry with about 10% other hardwoods. We received 7 bids ranging from $26,807 to $51,557.57, and we accepted the high bid. The harvest went well, except for a delay in starting. An extension of harvest time was granted for a $500 per month fee.
2012 Timber Sale
We had planned for our next harvest to be in 2015, but in 2011 Hurricane Irene came through and blew down 130 crop trees. We decided to move the harvest up to 2012 to make the most of a difficult situation. Our goal was to salvage blowdowns, mark ash heavily because of the threat of emerald ash borer, go light on maple and cherry because of the weak economy, and heavily remove culls.
The nation’s economy was still slowly recovering, so we were not optimistic with bid prospects. We combined sales with my sister’s neighboring property to make a more attractive sale and reduce the need for more skid trails and a second landing. The total bid contained 192.8 MBF and 140 culls/pulpwood. My share consisted of 164 MBF, dominated with 102 MBF of white ash plus an even amount of hard maple, soft (red) maple, and black cherry.
In the end we received three bids, the highest of which was $79,797.51. My share of the sale was $66,231.93—better than I had expected.
Without the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars I’ve invested in timber management, we would probably have had only one good timber sale in our lifetime. Selling timber had many benefits such as helping to finance our children’s college education and later their home improvements; trips to Alaska and Yellowstone; and savings for the grandchildren’s college education. Other benefits include opportunities for neighbors to buy many truckloads of firewood from my cull removal; improved wildlife habitat; business opportunities for local diesel fuel sales; chainsaw and other equipment sales and repair; and better trails within my woods. The quality timber harvested helped to employ skilled loggers and a local mill. The end products will be enjoyed by many for years to come in the form of quality cabinets, hardwood flooring, and furniture.
Always think safety; especially with power equipment like chainsaws, tractors and ATVs. They are required tools for most of us, but can turn good intentions to tragedy in seconds. Get training, use the training, don’t go too fast, and don’t operate power tools when fatigued. Everyone should take at least Level 1 of the Game of Logging regardless of how long you’ve operated a chainsaw.
Like many of us, I have the scars and scares from years of chainsaw use. I’ve been lucky. I never run a saw without a hardhat, ear protection, chaps, and good shoes.
Or nothing gets done. When managing a woodlot you quickly need to learn to deal with the cards you have. Trees are rarely spaced ideally when you do TSI. All trees will not be at the ideal size at the time of harvest. The best species are not always there. Mother Nature will change your plans with blowdowns, diseases, and rainfall events. It’s not always possible to tie a harvest to strong markets. Personal problems may dictate marketing. Management that’s good for some wildlife will be detrimental to another. Trails cannot always be placed in ideal sites because of bedrock outcroppings, wetlands, or skidder requirements.
Set your realistic priorities in a written plan, and then implement the plan. Be willing to change that plan as needed. Emerald ash borer will probably require me to amend my plan before my next scheduled harvest in 2028.
I think there are many capable foresters in New York State. They each have different levels of expertise when it comes to marketing, wildlife, implementing timber tax law 480-a, and their commitment to working with you to attain your goals and protect natural resources. You need to find one who shares your concerns. The better informed you are, the easier it is to find a forester who meets your needs, and the better the results of their work will be.
My forester is very knowledgeable but would not be suitable for everyone. I like his ability to get top dollar on timber sales, as well as his service provided with my 480-a plan. I find I do need to clearly state my goals and question his actions to ensure my goals are met.
I recommend that foresters be hired by the hour or by the acre when selling timber. Working by percentage can influence how the timber gets marked, such as marking too many trees or leaving the culls behind.
Trails are one of the most important forest features. It’s hard to enjoy or work your land if you cannot readily travel within it. If you have more than a few acres, a good trail system is a necessity.
Work with your forester and logger to achieve and protect a good network of trails. The old saying is very important: “Keep trails out of the streams and streams out of the trails.”
Properly installed waterbars are vital for long term trail use. Work with your forester and logger to get them installed properly. Make sure the waterbars are shaped and located so you can safely cross them with your equipment.
Immediately after a new trail is put in (or used for logging) I seed it, as long as it’s between spring and October 10. “Immediately” means before the freshly graded trail is rained on. I delay late fall and winter seedings until snowmelt in spring while the ground still freezes and thaws. That helps the seed settle into the soil.
Few people seed trails, but as a resource conservationist I want to quickly stabilize the soil, protect my access network, and provide a food source for wildlife. I have not used fertilizer. I think there are enough available nutrients in the soil. I could be proven wrong (at least in places).
The seeding mix I use is dominated by creeping red fescue. It’s one of the few grasses that grows in the shade, has a strong root system, and stays short for trail hiking. It also helps reduce weed pressure. Shady conservation mixes are OK if they have a high percentage of shade-tolerant fescues. I add white clover, wheat, and cereal rye to my seed mix for a quick cover for soil protection as well as to add food for wildlife.
My seed mix:
I use a front-mounted cyclone seeder on my ATV. I can quickly complete the job, but I do have to be very careful traveling over the new waterbars. They can easily tip an ATV. Once you seed your trails, try to stay off them until cover is established.
Deer viewing is enjoyed by most everyone. Their ability to survive is remarkable. How do they ever make it through deep snow, sub-zero temperatures, and with coyotes in pursuit? I view deer as a valued addition to the enjoyment of our property. However, they must be controlled if other parts of the ecosystem and they themselves are to be successful.
Deer numbers cannot exceed the carrying capacity of the land. Too many deer lead to only plant growth that deer will not eat or cannot reach. Invasives take over the landscape. Many other forms of wildlife can’t survive in an area over-browsed by deer. Regeneration of many desirable tree species becomes next to impossible. Deer numbers must be kept within desirable numbers to maintain a healthy forest habitat.
The only practical tool to control deer is hunting the females. Coyotes, bears, and bobcats can have a major population impact in some areas in some years. I may be lucky to have plenty of bear and coyotes assisting with controlling deer numbers on my hill. However, regulated deer harvests need to be used to keep deer numbers within the carrying capacity of the land. Our family harvests about two bucks and one or two does each year.
In the 1960s when I started running the fields in summer and hunting in the fall, there were many more deer. It was common to see a herd of maybe 6 does with 10 fawns. There were also plenty of cows around: active dairy farms with actively managed forage. Active farms increase the carrying capacity for deer. Deer find an easy meal in farmers’ fields. When farmers no longer manage the fields, deer rely more heavily on the forest for their meal.
I am actively increasing the tolerable deer carrying capacity of my land. I use three main practices to accomplish this. For the most part they are low cost and easy to do with basic equipment and knowledge.
We don’t worry about spring and summer forage for deer. There is typically an abundance of other food sources during those seasons. By focusing on fall and winter forage, we can have deer eating grass and apples instead of our forest seedlings.
I do not see the need to plant a fancy food plot every year. Food plots can be expensive and time consuming. They do work, and maybe they do create the most desirable meal for that big buck. However, nutritious grass fields will more than adequately provide a good meal with less cost and greater reliability.
Doing the work to increase the deer carrying capacity has to be done with the intent to harvest some of the extra deer you want the land to support. Deer will rapidly reproduce and magnify the deer pressure. My deer carrying capacity projects work for me because I’m on the colder side of the mountain, hunt deer, and have assistance from coyotes, bear, and bobcats.
Ponds are an enjoyable feature. There’s something about a water feature and the wildlife it attracts. There are several good publications available for guidance from the Catskill Forest Association, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Cooperative Extension and on-line, but here are my tips to help overcome common mistakes:
The Future of Winkler Woodlot??
My wife Vickie and I would love to have our two children take over our tree farm, but that isn’t likely to happen. The house and land take a major financial and work commitment. Our children are busy with their own successful careers and families in the Rochester area. Having a $500,000 investment for a few visits a year would not make sense. Taxes and upkeep would make the cost of ownership too great a burden. We will stay here on Dingle Hill as long as we are physically able to do the work. We have started to evaluate available tools to transfer our assets to our children. We have seen too many situations where farms are lost because of the lack of planning. When we sell the land, I would like to have some level of conservation easement for the new owner to follow, at least long enough that they understand the forest’s value rather than undo the work I’ve put into the land.
Frank Winkler is a landowner in Andes, New York. He has a BS in Crop and Soil Science; worked 32 years for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; and served 9 years as a part-time Conservation Planner for the Delaware County Soil & Water Conservation District. He is active in numerous landowner organizations including the New York Forest Owners Association, Catskill Forest Association, and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Master Forest Owner Program.