Profiles in Conservation

Landowner’s dream: healthy and diverse forest

People own land for many reasons. Some landowners own their land to make money off of it. Some seek their own natural refuge. Others try to improve their lands to make them more suitable for certain wildlife, and still others buy their land for recreation.

Lee Dunbar of Mansfield, Connecticut, does all that and more. He uses his rich background in environmental science and natural affinity for the outdoors to create a happy place for birds and other creatures on his land.

“I retired after working for about 30 years for the Connecticut Dept. of Environmental Protection,” Dunbar said. “During the early years my work there focused on the effect of pollutants discharged out of pipes on water quality. Later on, the focus shifted towards evaluating the impact of land use and what are called nonpoint sources of pollution. The focus was on water quality and its effect on fish and other forms of aquatic life.”

“We did a lot of biological monitoring, and we were able to do some exciting research on land use and how it relates to the health of streams and rivers in Connecticut,” he added. “That’s where the linkage with forests came into play.”

“The results could not be clearer: if you had 95 percent or more forested land in the upstream watershed, high-quality water and a healthy community of aquatic life were virtually assured. Less than 85 percent and impairment was equally certain.”

 “There is a stark and dramatic cutoff—from a watershed basis—where it is exceedingly difficult to maintain good water quality when you have 15 percent or more developed land.”

However, he said, even a densely developed city could still have good water quality, if it has an ample forested watershed to support it.

Life in Retirement

After he retired in 2009 and suddenly had more free time on his hands, Dunbar became much more interested in forest issues. He joined the Eastern Connecticut Forest Landowners Association, which provides assistance to local private forest landowners.

According to the nonprofit association’s Web site, they help promote the wise management of forested lands as a natural resource and provide information to landowners about management choices. They also work to make forest landownership profitable as an investment and serve to protect open spaces.

“Within my town, about 75 percent of the hundred or so people who have forest land own about 20?40 acres each,” he said. “Ownership is very fragmented. The place that I own here is among the largest parcels in town, yet it represents only a very small percentage of the total forest acreage in private ownership. This simple fact highlights the need for forest landowners to educate themselves on good forest management practices and work together.”

“The resources that have been provided by the state have plummeted,” he said. “The government investment in managing forests has gone down and down. Groups like Audubon, landowner associations, land trusts, and others are stepping up to provide something that used to be done at the state level.”

He said his land is about 2 miles away from the University of Connecticut in the northeast part of the state.

“My wife, Donna, and I got married about 15 years ago. At that time we had about 60 acres,” he said.

They now have two dogs and a horse, as well as considerably larger landholdings. “Our entire property today of about 230 acres has been together for about 10 years.”

“I really do like owning land,” he said. “It gives me the freedom to walk around, run my dog, and not worry about some guy telling me to get off his property. It’s not like money in the bank. It’s not very liquid, but it’s the satisfaction of having my own space.”

“I also have a hermit tendency. I like it best when I have some space. Having a place to be where you don’t have someone on top of you is a comfort issue for me I guess,” he added.

Their land is nearly all forested. They keep a few old fields brush hogged once a year to keep them open for wildlife habitat and knock down invasive plants, and an acre or two of pasture for the horse. About five acres of land is set aside for hay production, and there are two ponds totaling about 42 acres. The rest is under leafy canopy.

“It’s a weird shape,” he said. “It has narrow frontage. Most of it is in back, away from the road. The long part is along the north and south axis, and the narrower part is east to west.”

The property was originally named “Little Divide Farm” because a watershed drainage divide transects the property. The northeast corner drains to the Mount Hope River, while the southwestern portion drains into the Fenton River through Hansen’s Pond.

Recreation & Conservation

Dunbar said he enjoys spending time outdoors on his property throughout the year.

“We hunt turkeys in the spring and deer in the fall. I have a friend who lays traps for beaver and muskrat during the winter. Many of my neighbors and I fish the pond year round. Recreation’s a big component. I maintain several trails where my wife can ride her horse or just go for a leisurely walk in the woods. We do harvest some timber and cut firewood, which helps reduce the cost of our forest management activities.”

Dunbar said he believes land should be used wisely, not just set aside.

“There are a lot of people who think you should take a part of the forest and just lock it away. That’s a preservationist approach. My view is to have a healthy and diverse forest.”

“It’s not a preservation approach,” he added. “It’s a conservation approach.”

An experience he had years earlier helped shape his current beliefs on conservation and diversity.

“I can think back to when I was much younger and I would hunt with my buddies,” he said. “The fish and game people started diverting money from game to the nongame species.” He said he couldn’t understand their shift in priorities at the time, but now he does. “If you want to hunt, you want to hunt in the natural environment, not to shoot some deer behind a chain link fence. You want to be in the forest that represents what a forest should be, which includes songbirds, salamanders, and snakes, in addition to game species.”

Feathered Interests

Spending so much time outside on his property served to increase his interest in birds, some species of which live there seasonally. Others reside there year round.

“We’ve got nonmigratory birds here, like turkeys, all year long,” he said. “We have quite a few resident species that are here. We also have a half a dozen pairs of ducks that nest on the pond. In the fall we get large flocks of migratory ducks, mergansers, scaup, and ring-necked ducks moving through. Of course we get Canada geese too.”

His curiosity for his feathered friends soon turned into action, when he sought out expert advice.

Dunbar contacted Audubon Connecticut through the Eastern Connecticut Landowners Association to learn more about the birds that reside on and visit his property.

“The Audubon folks came out and did a habitat assessment for songbirds, which are obviously an important component of the forest. A robust songbird population is an indicator of the health and diversity of forest habitat,” Dunbar added.

A U.S. Forest Service competitive grant helped to make the assessment possible.

He was stunned by the assessment results, he said. “We took a 3- to 4-hour walk through the forest, and they identified 30?40 species of birds. They talked about openings in the canopy and the kind of food that different bird species look for, where they make their nests, and the types of forest habitat they need to be successful.”

He said that looking at the songbirds was helpful as well. “Getting the habitat assessment is helping me to recognize the impact of various management practices on bird habitats as I update my forest plan.”

“At the moment I’m fairly enamored with the migrant birds. I never really thought about them until the Audubon guys came by. The migrants travel thousands of miles to this forest, to make their nests and raise their young. At the same time they consume huge numbers of the insect pests that also would like to call my forest home, assist with pollination duties, and distribute seeds.”

“They come here, and if they don’t manufacture enough birds while they’re here they will die out,” he added. “There are a lot of dangers flying back and forth. There’s something about the forests here that makes a big difference to these migratory bird populations. Now when I look at the forest I’m mindful of maintaining these good bird habitats; otherwise they’re gone.”

“Some of these birds travel 3,000 - 4000 miles each way as the crow flies. There’s one that has a range all the way to Brazil,” he added.

“A lot of these warblers that are way up in the trees, they go a long ways and come back here for a reason,” he said. “It’s good to be useful, to provide a little bird habitat.”

Managing for Diversity

“We did a timber stand improvement harvest about 9 years ago, which was very successful from my perspective. Thinning and removing a number of cull trees really opened up the canopy and has increased the growth rate of the trees left standing, which should be ready for harvesting within the next 10 or so years. I’ve noticed an increase in soft mast production, and the understory has filled in nicely. There appears to be good regeneration of hardwoods as well—particularly oak.”

The primary objective of his forest management plan, he added, is to have a healthy and diverse forest in a natural condition.

“The approach we are using to manage our forest property at Little Divide Farm might be best characterized as ‘Integrated Natural Resource Management’ or, if you prefer, ‘Integrated Forest Resource Management.’ The idea is to evaluate the impact of management actions relative to increasing the overall environmental value of the property, and by doing so, enhance the economic value as well.”

Dunbar said his property supports a wide diversity of wildlife.

“We have vernal pools with amphibians,” he said. “We have top predators like coyotes and bobcats, as well as furbearers like beavers, otters, and raccoons. We also have deer, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, skunks, and mice, and of course the many resident and migratory birds. There are at least seven species of fish in the pond, and we have diverse populations of salamanders, snakes, turtles, and frogs. There’s not one group of wildlife that is not present there.”

One of the things he learned from his bird habitat assessment was that when someone does a timber harvest, for example, leaving tree tops and snags in place provides nesting areas and other benefits for birds and animals.

“Landowners really need to think about what it looks like to the wildlife, not necessarily what it looks like to them,” he added. “If you’re considering a squirrel, rabbit, deer, or songbird, what looks attractive to you in the forest is not necessarily what looks attractive to them.”

“Yes, I do have habitats for birds. For bird species, I have warblers, fair numbers of flycatchers, and a number of species that reside along the forest floor. My principal deficiency right now is that some of the areas do not have enough understory for optimal vertical diversity of habitat. This might be due to deer browsing, or something else. In some places I have good crown [cover] and good growth underneath. One practice I am currently considering is a patch cut on several acres to benefit those species that require the dense cover and food resources available only in young forest habitats.”

He said he is waiting on a written report from Connecticut Audubon to come back. “We did a timber stand improvement that provided some exceptional areas for songbirds,” he added.

“We want to leave a healthy forest for the next generation, particularly in this age of gloom and doom, development pressure, climate change, and emerald ash borer,” he said “Will the chestnuts come back someday? It’s fascinating. Some trees are shade tolerant and some aren’t. Each species has specific preferences for soils and moisture. What will the forest look like in 30 years, or 50? I wish I could live long enough so that if I did a clear cut of 6 acres, I could find out which tree species will win out. It’s a very interesting and beautiful place to be.”

“It makes me feel pretty good,” he added. “Now that I’m retired, I like to do things that make me feel good.”

Lee’s recommendations for other prospective landowners: “In my opinion, landowning is for anyone who is willing to make a commitment to take care of it. You have to have some respect for it. You won’t have it forever. Someone else will end up owning the land. It’s important to realize that you really don’t own it forever. You’re kind of renting it from the future.”

By Glenn Rosenholm

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