Profiles in Conservation

Where Science, Passion, and Business Connect

A story about two very smart and caring people who love each other and work together to manage their land like a business to make it a better place

Theirs was a match made in science.

Raul Chiesa and Janet Sredy celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary March 7, 2016, and they are still happy and working together after all these years.

Decades ago, their paths crossed in a most professional way. Chiesa, who speaks strongly accented English, came to America in October 1982 from the country of Uruguay, just south of Brazil. “I speak Spanish in addition to English,” he said, explaining. “I came here in 1982 to work at Columbia University as a Fulbright fellow.”

“I worked at the university, and on the first day I met a research fellow – Janet,” he said.

They hit it off right away.

“We had a lot of conversations and later even published several papers together.” Gradually, their working relationship grew into something more, and they married in 1986.

Both Chiesa and Sredy work in the biomedical field. He has an M.D. in pathology, and she holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.

“We can look at things as scientists. It’s about getting closer to the truth,” said Chiesa. Sredy agreed. “We’re accustomed to making observations and recording them,” she said.

They bring their keen analytical skills and passion for understanding the natural world into play in managing their land. The two enthusiastically talk about their property, 110 acres of land in Forward Township, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, PA.

“Virtually all of it is forested. We have some openings from removing invasive plant species and the mortality of white ash from emerald ash borer,” Sredy said. Their acreage is one piece split in half by State Route 136. Common trees on their property include oaks, chestnut, tulip or yellow poplar, black cherry, black gum, aspen, young white ash, elm maples, sycamore, dogwoods, walnut, and butternut, as well as cucumber magnolia.

“It’s a nice mixture,” she said.

They described their early start in managing the land that had been in the Sredy family since the 1920s.

“My parents gave us their five sevenths of ownership in 2000,” said Sredy. “They were old. They wanted to pass their ownership to us and they wanted us to keep it undivided. We asked ourselves what our parents would like to happen with this land.”

“Finally, in 2007 we secured full ownership of the property. We’re now an LLC, and so it’s just Raul and I, and my brother, Mark, and sister-in-law, Patty, who live in Nevada.”

When they finally took legal control in 2007, the property was in terrible shape, she said. “We couldn’t even walk into or see through it more than 5-10 feet. It was overgrown with invasive plants.”

Unlike some landowners, they don’t live on their property. Janet said there are no buildings on their land. Yet, “There are remnants of the old homestead,” she added, “our future archeological restoration project.”

They look at their land as both a passion and a business.

“We built it as a business to prove a concept of making forest management eventually financially sustainable,” Chiesa said. “Using the language of the business is key to the outcome.”

They also see the value of how their parcel fits into the bigger environmental landscape, often talking in terms of “carbon sequestration” and “ecosystem services”. Carbon sequestration is a natural process in which trees and other plants take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in their fiber. Ecosystem services describes the ways in which natural areas provide real value to communities, such as cleaner air and water, wildlife habitat, and scenic landscapes.

Chiesa and Sredy’s conservation efforts on their land focus on wood, wildlife, water, and recreation. Sredy said the work is very challenging, but also very rewarding. “We really like working on the land.”

Both of them love the outdoors. “When we lived in New York City, almost every weekend we would travel out of the city 250 miles to the mountains of the Adirondacks, fishing skiing, etc. We always had a strong affinity for the outdoors. For this land we have rational perspective, but we love the land,” Chiesa said.

When not managing their land, they love to go blue water sailing in the ocean when time permits. “When we are not in the green, we are in the blue,” he added.

People Pros and Cons

The two have faced many challenges over the years, most of them caused by human impacts. They have also benefitted by human interest in their land.

For instance, pollution from a nearby steel mill in the 1940s severely impacted the vegetation in most of their property. They have also had to deal with more direct impacts, as well.

“Our biggest problem was trespassing. We solved that through court cases, gates, signs, cameras, media coverage, and fences,” said Sredy.

“Our master plan includes a ‘no trespassing enforcement program’,” added Chiesa. “We spent a great deal of time and resources to correct the problem. When we got here the property was vacant and vandalized. We set up a program. We put up special signs to fill the legal requirement and to communicate and educate. We used a multistep approach to this. We prosecuted a trespasser, and that generated media coverage. We took the money from the court-awarded damages to set up a scholarship through the local high school. That generated more coverage about who we are and what we are doing in the community. It dramatically curtailed the trespass problem.”

“In 2007 we had about two trespass incidents a week. In the past 18 months we had only two incidents,” added Sredy.

Over the years, people also dumped construction debris and roughly 3,000 tires on their land. “They’re not dumping anymore, but we still have the tires and we are removing them as we work through the property,” said Sredy.

Despite their setbacks, their property is gradually improving in condition and becoming self-supporting, she said. “It’s making its own way, and we’re looking at ways to generate more income.”

They have a hunting lease program to generate revenue. “We have a very nice hunting program,” said Sredy. “Since we’re close to Pittsburgh, our hunting program is very accessible to the city people. We often lease to families. That’s our major lessees.”

While working their land over the years, they learned a lot about developing wildlife habitats, even naturally reintroducing the woodcock. “Seeing the outcome of good wildlife habitat restoration practices is astonishing,” added Sredy.

Describing his learning experience, Chiesa said, “Woodcock had not been seen in the area for a long time. I wanted to have them back in the property. I called our wildlife biologist and said I wanted a couple hundred woodcocks. The wildlife biologist replied that that is not how you do it. If you want woodcock in your property, you have to create the habitat to naturally attract and sustain them. We designed and implemented a plan with our wildlife biologist — and the woodcock is back.”

They take their land management planning seriously, seeking out professional advice and recommendations, in person and online, including field days and Webinars.

“We especially like Webinars,” Sredy said.

“We have to make sure we’re well aligned with everything around us,” said Chiesa. “The NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] conservation plan, the stewardship plan, the wildlife habitat management plan were all welded into a master business plan called a tree farm plan. The master plan is the roadmap we follow to get to our goals. And it is well aligned with the landscape conservation and development plans at the municipality, county, state, and national levels,” he said.

Sredy added, “They are written by professionals, foresters and wildlife experts. We rely on them to reach our goals. NRCS cost-sharing programs provided money to write and implement our plan. We hired consulting foresters. Then the DCNR [Pennsylvania Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources] service forester checks to make sure the work is properly done, sends the approval to NRCS, and NRCS sends payment.”

“Our DCNR forester oversees our stewardship plan. It was approved in 2010. It took a while because our forester was in the Army Reserve and did a few deployments during this time. He’s a very interesting guy,” she said.

They also entered the American Tree Farm System.

“We’re passionate about being a certified tree farm. You’re inspected periodically. It’s really good for all family forest landowners,” added Sredy. “Certification differentiates our business from other forms of land use.”

“Certification provides assurance that we are doing what we said we are doing. We commit ourselves to the plan that follows standards, and we are audited periodically to make sure we are in conformance with those standards. In many cases certification adds value to the forest products derived from certified lands. Certification is also a tool to synchronize the management of individual forest lands into the larger landscape plans and goals. To really manage the forest, we need to manage it on the larger landscape scale,” Chiesa added.

To restore their land, they spent countless hours removing invasive plants and planting various native trees and other vegetation, including mixes of clovers and wildflowers to support pollinators and game species on pipeline rights-of-way and at forest openings. They added conifers because they don’t have a lot of those.

Reaping Rewards

Chiesa said that today their forest land is completely transformed. “We love to walk around our land now, and we’re always finding new things. Our neighbors feel the same way about our land.”

For their hard work improving their land, as well as their innovation, Chiesa and Sredy received the 2015 National Tree Farmers of the Year Award. They take the praise in stride and see it as an opportunity to communicate with other interested landowners.

“We see it as a recognition,” said Chiesa. “We have had recognitions before in our careers. The remarkable thing is this recognition actually empowers you to reach out to other landowners and to connect with people, communities, organizations, and government agencies.

“And to tell people what we’re doing with our land,” added Sredy. “People actually reach out to us now.”

By Glenn Rosenholm

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