Profiles in Conservation
Retiring Rural Mayor Looks Forward to More Time in the Woods
By Glenn Rosenholm
Glen “Buck” Chestnut is looking forward to spending more time in the woods when he retires from civil service.
The mayor of Belle, WV, has served for several years and in various capacities as an elected official of his community of roughly 1,400 residents. He will tell you that it is a very busy part-time job. It’s supposed to be about 30 hours a week, Monday through Thursday, with Fridays off. More often than not, though, Chestnut finds himself working most Fridays too.
Belle is a small rural community in Kanawha (pronounced “Ka-NAH-wa”) County, situated along the Kanawha River. The town was incorporated in 1958. It is far removed from the big city and lies deep in the heart of Appalachian coal country, about 3 hours southwest of Morgantown, WV, by car.
He has served as the town’s mayor for roughly 7 years, ever since the previous mayor died of a heart attack while in office and he stepped into the role. Chestnut had been a city council member for more than a decade in 2011 when his fellow city council members asked him to serve out the former mayor’s remaining 3 years of office. Chestnut obliged, and after completing his predecessor’s 4-year term, he subsequently ran for and was elected to his own first term as mayor.
The biggest project happening in their town at the time of this writing is the construction of a waste treatment facility, which will serve to improve water quality there. Their community had to borrow $5.4 million over 40 years to pay for the new facility.
Prior to serving as a council member and then as mayor of Belle, Chestnut worked for 27 years at an Occidental Chemical facility in town before retiring. He worked in the purchasing department at Occidental, which has chemical, oil, and gas plants all over the world.
He described his journey from private sector to public service. “I kind of volunteered in different projects we had going on in town. As a citizen, I felt obligated to make things better. I replaced a council member eventually because I was already doing a lot of things that council members did. I served as council member for 10 years. Then I left the council for 3 to 4 years and ended up on it again. I was on the committees for finance, budget, street department, and recreation. I also served as the president of the council. That typically goes to the most senior council member,” he said.
He said his leap from council member to mayor was not too difficult as he gained valuable experience on the council. “The things that helped to prepare me to become the mayor included being president of the council, chairman of the finance committee, and serving on the ordinance, buildings and permits, and garbage and recycling committees,” he added. “Recreation is another one. I was on the streets, sidewalks, and planning committees as well.”
“The council members voted me to be the mayor [in 2011],” he added. “I had never sat in the mayor’s chair, and there was a whole lot more to it than I realized. There was no one to train me for the job, as the previous mayor died while in office. I didn’t even know where they kept the files. The family took the previous mayor’s files out to gather his personal effects. That didn’t leave a lot of files. It was a big learning curve for me.”
The busy and challenging job also had its share of benefits, though, he said.
“Serving on city council committees helped me to become aware of some of the land management issues, practices, and programs.”
The experience and abilities Chestnut gained through planning civic projects on behalf of his community now serve him well in realizing his goals for improving his own land. He looks forward to the challenge.
“I would like to develop my property to be the best it can be in my lifetime, for wildlife and conservation, and also manage it for the best of my ability for timber. The practices that I’m doing now are doing just that. The practices that I’m completing are the things that enhance the timber growth,” he said.
The newly retired Chestnut is now 78 years old. He looks forward to putting his paid career behind him, including less time spent commuting. He is also keenly interested in spending more time working in his own woods, although perhaps not too close to bees.
Chestnut owns 320 acres of mostly forested land near Blue Creek, about 30 miles from Belle. Like much of West Virginia, the area is a rugged, scenic landscape full of forested hills and valleys. Its highest point is 1,200 feet above sea level, and its lowest spot is about 600 feet. Buck calls the high point on his land “Chestnut Knob.”
He originally purchased 181 acres in 1992; after subsequent purchases, his land now totals 320 acres. “I won’t buy anymore, or my wife will divorce me,” he said. Buck has been married to his wife, Nancy, whom he describes as “a beautiful red-headed woman,” for 57 years.
He has been working methodically in the woods for more than two decades to improve his patch of the planet. Chestnut recently completed his first 10-year forest stewardship plan that he started in 1996. Now he is working on his second plan, which began around 2008 or so.
Chestnut is proud of his work to improve habitat for the cerulean warblers that frequent his area. The cerulean warbler’s population is dropping faster than any other warbler species in the United States, according to Defenders of Wildlife. He hopes that the changes he’s making to his land will make a good home for the birds and that their population will increase over time.
“I’m in a contract with the State of West Virginia to provide 10 acres of habitat for the cerulean warbler. They like to roost in the highest trees,” he said. Cerulean warbler habitat covers the “knob” on top of his land.
His other work on the land over the years has been extensive.
After clearing the side of a hill around 1994, he planted 200 Chinese chestnut trees. “The deer love the chestnuts. It’s also my last name, so I had to have some chestnuts on the property,” he said.
He cleared another 20 acres of forest so that he could plant fruit trees and other plants. Today, he has 400 yards of grapes and 178 apple trees. He also has pear, peach, and plum trees, about 10 to 12 of each one.
“Those fruit trees are mostly for wildlife, but I like apples myself,” he added. “My favorite apple to eat is the Gala, though my favorite apple for wildlife is the Arkansas black.”
His planting work did not stop at fruits and nuts, however. Chestnut also planted 200 bald cypress and 50 sawtooth oak trees in recent years, as well as another 2,500 pine trees, including about 500 eastern white pine. However, some of the pine seedlings have since gone missing and are now presumed digested.
“The deer ate about 450 of 500 white pine,” he said. “After I found out the deer liked to eat the white pine, my professor told me to use Norway pine instead because they have shorter needles. They ate those too.”
His professor also said to staple the tops of the trees with newspaper so the deer wouldn’t eat them. That seemed to keep them away, he said. When a deer eats the top of a young tree, it can stunt it forever.
He also put a stake beside each planted tree and later added a wire cage to prevent deer browsing.
To reduce soil erosion, Chestnut put in three or four culverts on his land where roads cross waterways. “I had to make several roads,” he said. “I have four creek crossings.”
Chestnut said he worked extensively with his forester, Tom Oxley, who works for the State of West Virginia Division of Forestry. He also collaborated with about a dozen other foresters over the years to improve his land and wildlife habitat for species such as deer, turkey, grouse, rabbit, and bear.
He noted that he could never have completed his stewardship project without the help of Oxley and his other foresters, who provided excellent advice about when and where to plant trees, among other things. Every time he signed up for a “practice” (state-organized forestry-related program), some forester would provide advice on how to complete the goal.
Chestnut’s primary goal is to improve his land for wildlife, including deer and grouse.
Chestnut also praised his late private consulting forester, Mark Metz, who worked with him extensively to manage his land and provided invaluable assistance in conducting forestry practices, such as timber stand improvement. The forester developed about 15 practices they could do to achieve their goal. Metz passed away about 6 years ago.
“The guidance was so great,” Chestnut said. “The State would certify that you completed the practice that you were supposed to. That’s why I got 2018 West Virginia Tree Farmer of the Year, because I had certification for completing many practices.”
In addition to his tree farmer honors, Chestnut was also selected as the West Virginia Soil Conservation Farmer of the Year in 2002.
While Chestnut can tally a long list of land improvement accomplishments over the years, not all of them proved successful. Case in point: his very brief foray into beekeeping several years back.
Someone gave him a stand of bees about 15 years ago to start up his own bee population on his land. “But those were angry bees,” he said. At the time of the incident, Chestnut had on his beekeeping gear and was using a hand-held smoker to keep the bees docile while he went into the hive. “I was going to rob some honey, but I also had to put a couple things in there to help prevent the virus that was killing the bees off.”
Something went wrong, though, and the bees starting going after Chestnut. He increased the smoke from his hand-held device in an attempt to keep the bees at bay, but that didn’t work. Somehow his smoker came too close to his cloth mask, and it burned a hole right through the protective enclosure. The bees entered the fresh hole in the mask and started stinging his head and neck.
Chestnut started running as fast as he could, making a beeline for his house, about 100 yards away. The bees followed him in hot pursuit. He said the angry bees chased him right past his friend, who was sitting at a picnic table, and kept dogging Chestnut all the way back into his house. His friend was never bothered by a single bee, but Chestnut received several stings out of the ordeal.
He said that sometimes the bees will pick up a scent and follow it a long way. That’s why his friend wasn’t bothered; the bees were tracking Chestnut’s own scent.
To the bees, he probably smelled a little something like fear.
“There are relatively mild bees, and then there are mean bees,” said Chestnut. “Those were mean bees.”
He has not tried his hand at beekeeping since then.
Chestnut retired at the end of his mayoral term on June 30, 2018.
All images by Richard A. Gregg, courtesy of Buck Chestnut, unless otherwise indicated.