Profiles in Conservation

Leaving the world a better place

Wildlife benefit from landowner’s stewardship goals

By Glenn Rosenholm

Retired business executive John Cobb has it pretty good—really good, in fact.

Cobb, age 76, owns 347 acres of mostly wooded and hilly land in Ireland, WV. The highest point on his property is a mountaintop that he calls “Cobb’s Knob” at 1,725 feet above sea level. His family calls this land “Grandpa’s Forest.” His residence features a recently built 4,600-square-foot house situated atop his mountain. His girlfriend, Betty, 82, was born a mile down the road. And they are still in good health.

Yet with all he has, Cobb wanted even more—to leave his small part of the world a better place.

When he first bought his land back in 2006, no one had lived there for decades. Parts of it were overrun by invasive plants, and there were hardly any breaks in the forest canopy. Because his property was so uniformly forested, the biodiversity there was lower than it could be. He decided to make a few changes.

Cobb sought out professional advice to help him achieve his goals, and he later hired a private forester.

“He came out to my property in 2009 and estimated the board feet of my timber,” Cobb said. “He mentioned that I should get a Forest Stewardship Plan, so I did.” The Forest Stewardship Program helps private forest landowners sustainably manage their forest land.

“I was then introduced to Travis Miller with the West Virginia Division of Forestry. He and I worked for several years to get the stewardship plan together and realized. He opened up all new vistas for me about what I could do with my land for myself and my family.”

Cobb developed his personal, prioritized list of stewardship goals in consultation with his forester. They included these:

  1. wildlife protection,
  2. recreation,
  3. soil conservation,
  4. water quality, and
  5. quality growth of timber for subsequent sale.

“I hate to cut timber,” he said, “but all of the foresters that I talk to say that at a certain age of timber you have to cut it.”

He started the plan in 2009, but didn’t complete the development phase of it until 2015. The plan took an unusually long time to develop because he bought additional acreage and made improvements to his land, he said.

“In 2007 I finished cutting in a driveway. In 2008 I built a house. In 2010 I bought another 20 acres.”

In total his land purchases included 180 acres in 2006, 20 acres in 2010, and 147 acres in 2013.

“For enacting the plan, it’s still a work in progress,” he added. “It’s a 10-year plan.”

“What my stewardship plan does is divide my property into 11 stands. The activity that I do in those stands is based on the dominant basal timber in those stands. If you have different timber in different stands, then that will affect your management activity.”

He said most of his recent timber cut was comprised of poplar along with white and red oak.

“They recommended I do a clearcut of sections of the forest for wildlife, then selective cuts in the other areas of the land.”

Cobb has become a big believer in stewardship plans. “It helps support my managed timber status with the West Virginia Division of Forestry, and it allowed me to work with the assessor and get a tax break on my property taxes.”

One of his major wildlife goals was to increase habitat for the cerulean warbler, a migratory bird whose population declined 70 percent from 1966 to 1999, and is estimated to number about 560,000 today. The cerulean warbler’s migratory range is large, stretching from New York to South America.

Cobb went to great lengths to get approval for his proposed project that would improve habitat for not just one bird, but for other species as well.

“When you create this habitat, it benefits deer, a variety of birds and other animals,” he added.

He subsequently gained approval for contracts to cut some of his timber in support of the Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement Project. These cuts would create openings in the forest canopy, enhance cerulean warbler habitat, and in turn, enhance biodiversity on his land.

Cobb said he later did some “very extensive” work to promote the warbler. The project was done in conjunction with the West Virginia Division of Forestry, Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture, and National Wild Turkey Federation.

“We created habitat last January through March, and it worked, as they found eight couples of warblers there this spring. The project involved U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and others.”

Making money, helping biodiversity

Cobb even made a little money along the way to making the world a slightly better place.

He received almost $7,000 for his participation in the clearcut, and he sold his timber for an additional $31,000 or so.

“People don’t know that they can get paid to make their property better. I wrote an article about it, and it was published in a number of newspapers.”

“That clearcut is the most amazing thing you can do for wildlife. White-tailed deer, wild turkey, ruffed grouse are already thriving here, and woodcock. They stop in here and raise their young, go up to Montreal, and go back down to New Orleans each fall. The U.S. Department of Agriculture folks have found yellow breasted chats here, and that is a rare sighting they say. Yes, it’s all working.”

He said the government paid him about $1,800 for two smaller cuts on another conservation project.

All but 20 acres of his 347-acre property operate as a tree farm.

“I farm all of the indigenous trees on my property. There are farmers that plant trees for sale, but I try to stick with the indigenous trees on my property,” he added.

Trees on his land include these: tulip (yellow) poplar, red oak, white oak, black walnut, black cherry, hickory, butternut, chestnut oak, sugar maple, American beech, white pine, and red maple.

He also labored more than 120 hours in recent months to remove invasive plants that had grown and flourished during the decades his land remained vacant.

“I cut two grapevine sections. The forester goes in, and he sees grapevines from the ground to the top of the tree. There was no one on this property since the 1930s. Before that, there were just several small farms. Because no one had been on this land, some of the grapevines were 8 inches in diameter. The grapevines can actually pull a [smaller or weakened] tree down in a bad storm.”

Other invasive plant species, including autumn olive, multiflora rose, and Japanese stiltgrass, are also being removed. Cobb said these species were, unfortunately, introduced by a State agency to reclaim the land following coal strip mine operations.

“When I’m up here working the different trails, one of my timber stand projects is cutting ash trees that had been killed by the emerald ash borer. I only have about 130 ash trees on my property, and I have cut 37 so far.”

Joy of success

When asked, Cobb said he is very pleased with the many visible and long-lasting results of his plan, so far.

“Sure, absolutely. When I did this clearcut Travis said this will be a perfect view. If you take the stumps out and plant fescue and clover it will be filled with grouse, wild turkeys, and deer because of the fescue and five different types of clover.”

“Travis went through my forest with my Stewardship Plan. It helped me to accomplish my goals when I did this clearcut. I built my house on a mountaintop. Based on his input, from 2010 to 2015, I hired a retiree from the Army Corps of Engineers to bulldoze fire trails for the fire safety of my forest, as well as recreation, and work access trails so that I could accomplish the work activities as defined in my Stewardship Plan. You have to have your trails wide enough in West Virginia so that the fire trucks can get in and put out the fire,” he said.

“He [Travis] said I should put one or two vernal pools in here. The dozer will put an 18-inch-deep cut in the ground to create the vernal pool that will be 25 feet long and one dozer blade wide. That will help frogs, snakes, etc. Vernal pools are only full in the rain and stay full for a short time, and refill the next time it rains,” he added.

Cobb credited some of his progress to the substantial planning assistance he received from his forester.

“It was easier because Travis Miller is very good at what he does. I sent a letter to the West Virginia Governor about the value of foresters.”

Path to Cobb’s woods

By the number of improvements Cobb has made on his land in recent years, someone might think that he had spent his entire life on the land there working the rugged hills of West Virginia. That is not the case, though. His career took him far away from these scenic, rural parts for much of his life.

Cobb described his education and career path.

“I have a graduate degree in marketing with a minor in economics. I was senior vice president for CBS in New York City. I was also senior vice president for McGraw Hill Publishing Company in Washington, DC. At age 25 I was a general manager for four divisions of Bell and Howell Company. I had a short tenure after retirement with the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, VA,” he said.

Cobb is no stranger to working outdoors, though.

“Before I finished college, I worked two summers for the Department of the Interior in Yellowstone National Park eradicating gooseberry bushes to make sure the white pine blister rust did not infect the white pines there. If you break the blister rust life cycle, you help the white pine.”

Sharing results

Since starting his own plan Cobb has already helped four other landowners sign up for the Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement Project.

He also recommends that other retirees consider managing their own land.

“The average age of a farmer here in Lewis County is 60 years old. The majority of people who are stewarding forests in West Virginia are retired people. It’s a rewarding way to spend your later years and to do something good for the planet and for future generations. Best of all, with a Stewardship Plan in place landowners can get paid from the Farm Bill to improve their land. Nobody believed you can accomplish this invasive plant eradication with a chainsaw and a weed eater, like I did.”

“I also have two small fields in my woods that were old home sites from the 1930s. I did a back cut around both fields. My forester said I should cut 50 feet into the woods, except for a few types of mast producing trees. It is good for wildlife. I left small logs in place but sold the big logs. A back cut can be done by girdling or cutting the standing trees and leaving the fallen ones. Turkeys can bring their young into the fields without worry of predators.”

Cobb was noticeably proud of his accomplishments.

“From what the foresters tell me, no one else has done this many projects on their land in West Virginia in recent years,” he added.

Despite his occasional aches and pains from working so hard to improve his land Cobb said he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

“Ever since I was 6 years old I wanted to live in the woods, and now I’ve fulfilled my childhood dream. I’ve travelled all over the world in my business days. There’s no place in the world that I haven’t been or that I would want to go back and visit. This is where my heart is and where my focus is. I don’t like leaving my mountaintop.”

Cobb’s Woodland Stewardship Projects have included these:

  • Cut grapevines in 2010 and 2014 through a USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
  • Completed two back cut borders around fields for wildlife in 2016.
  • Just finished a 10-acre clearcut for wildlife in 2017.
  • Performed two select cuts for cerulean warbler habitat improvement in 2017.
  • Just worked through the 4th year of a 5-year autumn olive and multiflora rose invasive species control program.
  • Plans to start an EQIP contract in 2018 for culling American holly and grapevines from a 20-acre section of his timberland.

Cobb says his motto in life is taken from a good fellow friend of the forest and the pond:

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show for any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not deter or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

All photos courtesy of John Cobb unless otherwise indicated.

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