Profiles in Conservation

MEET SYDNEY ANTONIO

Pre-teen Summer Camp Desperado Turned Successful Forest Land Manager

If you asked Sydney Antonio how she came to own 450 well-managed acres of forest land in Upstate New York, she would tell you it had a lot to do with her hating summer camp as a child.

She REALLY hated it.

“Around 1957 or so, my mom sent my brother and me off to camp,” she said. “I disliked the housekeeper, and mom didn’t think we should spend summers in the city, so she sent us off to camp.”

Soon after Sydney arrived out in rustic wilderness called camp, she found the situation there too structured, conforming, and impersonal for her taste.

“I got to camp and I was in a tent — with other people. I had to do what they wanted to do, by their schedule. I had a book and I wanted to read it, but I had to go by their schedule.”

Her annoyance with the situation soon turned to unease.

“My mother dropped me off on Sunday, and Monday I wrote her a letter explaining my concerns. She didn’t reply. I thought Friday was sufficient time for her to receive the letter, reply, and come pick me up.”

Her mother didn’t get the letter, though, and so she never picked Sydney up. “In 20/20 hindsight, I don’t know how often they sent out the mail at camp,” Sydney added.

By Friday, her patience had run its course and she was determined to put an end to her camper’s nightmare. Sydney packed up her bags and ever so discreetly left the premises of said camp. She was all of 12 years old.

She walked to the side of the highway, stuck her thumb out, and started hitchhiking. Sometime later, a truck driver picked her up and drove her near the edge of the city before dropping her off. “He gave me enough money to take the subway home,” she added.

Their family lived in an urban brownstone, she said, and their living room was on the ground floor. Her mother was on the phone as she arrived.

“When I got home I was prepared to get the licking of my life, but nothing happened. I was grounded, but I was allowed to read as many books as I wanted, so I was a happy camper at home,” she said. She spent the rest of her summer at home, in the city, reading.

Subsequently, her mother and maternal grandmother went looking for some place that would solve the problem of getting Sydney off the streets of the Big Apple during the summer months.

“They found this parcel,” said Sydney. “It had been thoroughly timbered, so they got it cheaply.” The total was 725 acres. Her mother bought 450 acres and her grandmother purchased another 275 acres in 1959. Because of their discrimination concerns in making the purchase, they had a corporation formed to make the deal.

Her mother was an engineer, a graduate of Cooper Union. Her father was a Tuskegee Airman and lawyer. “I spent the rest of my summers here in Haines Falls, New York,” Sydney added. Haines Falls is about 12 miles west of Hudson in the eastern part of the Empire State.

“The following year they built a house,” Sydney said. “They did it piece by piece. Being an engineer, mother knew what to do.”

Life in the Woods

Decades later, after 20 years as a passenger service agent with Pan American Airlines, Sydney decided to move permanently upstate away from the city. Her husband, Evon, shared her love of the outdoors, so they bought a parcel of land in the same county as Sydney’s mother’s land and built their own house. Some years later, Sydney’s mother moved in with them.

Unfortunately, their house burned down after an explosion caused by a leaking propane valve in November 1997.

They decided to rebuild their home, but this time they did it on Sydney’s mother’s land. Their new domicile was built on the family compound, in a place where Sydney’s mother always wanted Evon to build a house.

He did and there they’ve remained ever since.

Today, Sydney and Evon own 450 acres of land, about 445 of which is forested. The remaining 5 acres or so is just the land around their house and about an acre of water.

Their property has an elevation between 2,300 and 3,200 feet above sea level. It is shaped like two rectangles at an angle to each other.

For trees, they have mostly hard maple, red oak, white ash, yellow birch, and black cherry on their land. Hemlocks and other conifers make up the remaining 15 to 20 percent.

Concerning the evergreens, she said, “They have very little commercial value, depending upon the year. Some years they have some value, and other years they have none. They always have ecological value, though.”

Such a large, unbroken landscape naturally supports a wide variety of flora and fauna.

“I saw a momma bear the other day and two cubs,” she said. “We also have a (somewhat annoying) beaver that built his house on the pond last year. We have to have a talk.”

Sydney and Evon manage their forest land primarily for sustainable hardwood timber production, with indirect benefits to the environment and wildlife, she said. Both are Master Forest Owners, having completed the required training at Cornell University. Working closely with a consultant forester, they developed a management plan that guides their forestry activities. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) approved their plan under section 480-a of the State’s Forest Tax Law. The plan also serves as the basis for their certification in the American Tree Farm System. State officials prescribe and schedule forest activities to be undertaken under 480-a Certification and check on the property periodically to evaluate tree health and verify program compliance.

“New York State encourages better management of forest land,” Sydney added. “The forest is healthier as a result. You get better production because the forest land is properly managed, and there’s less negative environmental impact such as soil erosion and sedimentation caused from stormwater runoff.”

Her mother always managed the property for timber, as far back as 1961. “With multigenerational stewardship and installation of best management practices for erosion control, particularly given the steepness of the terrain, there was very little loss when Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011,” she said.

“When Irene came we had a huge volume of water, though not as much wind. We had had the wettest summer in years, and water just poured down the hills. Most of the trees that were ripped out were hemlocks, and they swept into the creek,” she said.

“We had minimal damage to the interior logging roads. However, our right-of-way, which provides the only access to the property and serves as the haul road for logging operations, did not fare as well, in spite of our efforts. The enormous water volume breached our bridge at the confluence of two intermittent streams and severely undermined the roadway. After the repairs were completed, we were able to obtain partial reimbursement through the Emergency Forest Restoration Program, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. Because we had such good management, we didn’t lose as many trees as some people did. DEC was pleased with what they saw,” she said.

“I chalk that up to three generations of forest management,” Sydney added.

“We actively manage our forest land,” she added. “Our maple trees are not managed for syrup; they’re managed for timber. There are maple trees that are used for sap, and there are other maple trees that are managed primarily for high-value timber. We do the latter. We leave the tops and unmarketable portions of trees on the forest floor to protect regeneration from deer browse, provide wildlife habitat, and replenish soil nutrients as they decay.”

By Glenn Rosenholm

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