2016-12-14 / From the Forest

Smaller Acreage, Larger Forests

By Ryan Trapani

What’s a forest anyway? I remember many years ago, the first time I hiked up Giant Ledge in the heart of the Catskill Forest Preserve. Giant Ledge is what it describes – a giant ledge. What’s remarkable about it is that it’s one of the few openings within the roughly 50,000-acre Slide Mountain Wilderness Area. On that day, I realized the northern portion of Ulster County was literally a vast forest; a landscape certainly dominated by trees.

It’s not surprising that a forest dominates the landscape within an area that prohibits tree cutting, such as state lands within the Catskill Forest Preserve. On Giant Ledge one is looking down into Woodland Valley where there is quite a bit of land ownership along the Woodland Valley Creek. Sure, you might hear someone mowing a lawn down there, but good look finding the house or lawn through the green smoke screen. Instead, most of the upper mountainside is owned by one large landowner who forgot to cut the grass a long time ago. Most of that woods hasn’t seen cutting since crosscuts were “state of the art” technology; the early 20th century’s NYS Forest Preserve system.

Looking Down on the Rondout

Okay, so barely anyone would expect otherwise in the forest preserve. What is surprising is what I found a few years back when I hiked another mountain on the eastern escarpment; this time above the Rondout Valley where my house sits. The Rondout Valley is completely different; there are many landowners. On my road alone – which stretches about one and-a-half miles – there is an abundance of parcels fewer than two acres. Supposedly, the average parcel size in the Catskills is somewhere between 10 and 20 acres. In any case, you would barely know it. Despite smaller parcel sizes, I found the survey lines well covered by a vast forest dominating the Rondout Valley and beyond. In fact, my house and five or so neighbors represented the only break in that vast forest. I guess we’re the few that have been cutting the grass continuously since the 19th century when this same valley was exactly the opposite – a large vast pasture. Maybe I should call my lawn, a field preserve; they seem scarcer than forests!

Looking Down on the Wallkill

Okay, so perhaps you’re not impressed that the Rondout Valley and its surrounding Catskill foothills are dominated by forest. So, there is another mountain southeast of the Rondout called Millbrook Mountain; it’s really a high point along the Shawangunk Ridge. On its western flank is the previously mentioned Rondout Valley, but its eastern flank is the Wallkill. The Wallkill is more densely populated and contains more farms too. It contains the Village of New Paltz, Pine Bush, Montgomery and Wallkill. In fact, Wallkill was once the “Home Farm” of John G. Borden. Maybe you’re familiar with Elsie the Cow; a cartoon cow developed as a mascot for the Borden Dairy Company in 1936 to symbolize the “perfect dairy product.” Well, I couldn’t spot Elsie that fine day atop Millbrook. Certainly, there are more houses in the Wallkill than the Rondout or Catskill Mountains; even so, the fields are minor patches among a vast forested quilt.

Forestry into the Future

So, what’s the point of all this surprise in parcel sizes and forest vastness anyway? First, is the condition that despite parcelization, the land continues to be dominated by forest; many towns are above 70 percent forested. That’s right; farms and developed areas are the minority of the landscape within the six counties of the Catskill Mountains. A landowner who owns six or 16 acres might not think they’re a forest owner, but they sure are; they are the majority of what I saw that day over the Rondout and Wallkill. And the same is true if you were looking over the East Branch Delaware River, the lower Beaverkill, etc. But, can this small forest be managed? Can “forestry” adapt to smaller parcels inside a vast forest?

I’m not sure. I don’t have a crystal ball and chances are, you don’t either. One thing is for sure, despite the decrease in parcel size, forest acreage has increased. However, smaller parcels are severely disadvantaged when it comes to timber management. Timber requires large equipment – i.e. a skidder or forwarder – to transport logs from the woods. Under these circumstances, money kind of does grow on trees and more of them in one location leads to a greater likelihood that a logger’s equipment and time can be paid for. Smaller parcels may also pay a higher tax rate, since there is a greater chance that one’s house resides in closer proximity to potentially harvestable trees, making the land more valuable. Even so, if you have a great site for growing trees, even a small acreage can be worth managing for timber. It really depends upon the quality, species, and numbers of trees you have in relationship to accessibility and the nearest mill.

What to do with a Few Trees?

If timber isn’t foreseeable, there are plenty other options within the realm of forestry. Let’s look at this in a different way. Smaller parcel sizes have- n’t inhibited many landowners from growing vegetables, fruit, or even a few acres for livestock. Some may make some money from their efforts, but most probably do it for family, friends, and some fun. In other words, agriculture isn’t constricted to large landowners and neither should forestry. Forestry doesn’t have to take place on 50- forested acres or more; it can occur with a few trees or one stand. You can: Release fruit & nut trees to improve fruit & nut production for wildlife, Restore “volunteer” apple trees for your family or wildlife, Thin out a maple stand for a maple sugarbush, Improve forest health by culling trees for firewood, Leave some trees on the ground for added wildlife cover, Improve hunting opportunities by cutting some trees for browse, Cultivate forest mushrooms using cull trees , Learn about the many forest edibles & medicinals that exist inside your small forest, and Install wooden boxes for owls, kestrels, or woodducks.

What is just as remarkable as the view I saw over Giant Ledge, the Rondout Valley, or the Wallkill was from beneath a single 10-inch red oak tree, one day. The landowner insisted they weren’t a forest owner. I told her she was the owner of one nice tree; a struggling red oak tree that was being shaded out by some maple and ash. “If you don’t cut the ash and maple around it, it won’t be nice for long.” I bet that oak tree is enjoying the view too now that it can see the sun. www.catskillforest.org

Editor’s note: Ryan Trapani is the interim executive director of the Catskill Forest Association.

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