Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mental Health Day

Other than one visit in early May, work and weather conspired to keep me away from Bliss Hill this summer until August 19 when I enjoyed a full day in the woods. It's been a busy summer, with a little stress thrown in, so I was eager to take a day off to spend some time in the woodlot.

I left home at 8:30 and was in the woods by 10:30. My trip was both helped and hindered by new paving of Route 32 north of Athol. The smooth road allowed faster and easier driving, but the work was still going on right where I needed to turn west onto Warwick road, so I had to continue north nearly to the New Hampshire border where I could turn south on Bliss Hill Road. This short detour was no bother as it gave me a chance to learn more about the neighborhood and locate Royalston Falls, a Trustees of Reservations property I will have to visit soon.

I planned on spending about six hours in the woods and I wanted to keep the agenda simple. I wanted to continue work clearing a walking path I started in May and I wanted to continue the felling of storm-damaged birch that began in March.

As far as I can tell, this woodlot has has been untouched since it was logged-over about three decades ago. So many small trees sprang up under the thin overstory that was left behind that it is now difficult to walk - and even see - through the woods. In the past, I've used a small bowsaw to clear small limbs and saplings as I moved about these overgrown woods, but this time I brought a pair of lopping shears. This tool proved so ideal for the task at hand that snipping branches and small trees out of my way became an addiction. They made a satisfying snap and pop with every cut, like biting into a fresh carrot.

The path mostly followed an old skid trail left over from the logging. It goes from the road about 800 feet all the way to the back southwest corner of the property. I first marked it with green flagging and followed up with green paint once I became confident I had picked a good route. Using the shears, the path became walkable surprisingly quickly.

It soon became clear to me how important a good path can be. In the past, as I stumbled around through the undergrowth I was often unsure of my exact location, and relocating a particular spot could be time-consuming. Having a clear path allows me to quickly locate landmarks and have a good sense of where I am. It helps me become more quickly familiar and intimate with the land and helps me plan future activities within the framework of a better mental map. I've already started laying out a side trail to a favorite lunch spot on an old stone wall and hope to complete a loop around the whole place.

After I was satisfied with my new path, I paused for lunch on the old wall. The property is only gently sloping and relatively free of large rocks for New England so I've been having a little trouble finding particularly inviting places to sit, eat and look around. Forestry feng shui can be tricky. I have a segment of an old wall on the property and at a gap in this wall is a nice flat rock for sitting. As I ate and rested, I looked around and thought about ways I could clean up the woods a bit and improve the view. Eventually, I hope to find a good spot for a fire and sleeping.

After lunch, I fired up the chainsaw to continue cutting down small birch trees that were bent over by an ice storm a few years ago. By the end of the day, most of the remaining damaged trees were down and my wood pile had grown. I piled some of the wood under a tarp so it can begin drying for future campfires or trips home. I left behind any sizable birch that wasn't storm damaged and the area is starting to look much better. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I'm not 100% sure about the species identity of every tree. I'm beginning to suspect that in this one small area I may actually have four birch species: gray, yellow, paper and black.

By the end of the day, I was really feeling good. With every visit, I feel more familiar with the property and feel like I'm making a little progress toward putting my own mark on the land and making it my own. Now, I'm more eager than ever to get back to Bliss Hill.

Before heading home, I drove over to the other side of Bliss Hill to Chase Hill Farm in Warwick. This is an organic dairy farm where they produce meat, milk and cheese from grass fed cows. I purchased a little cheese on the honor system, and brought home a little reminder of my day in the country.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Good Enough!

I was invited to attend a meeting of landowners who have conservation restrictions (CRs) on their property. Since I am curious about some of the implications of my CR and since the meeting was close to my property, I decided to play hooky for half a day and go even though the meeting was mid-week. With the days getting a little longer now, I could leave home after lunch, spend a few hours in the woods, and get to the meeting on time.

The first item on my agenda was to finally wrap up the locating of my back - or western - property line. On my first two attempts to lay out the boundary using my old Silva Ranger compass and the compass bearings from a 1981 plot plan I was frustrated and perplexed because the line I was projecting from one corner stake to the other was missing the mark by a good margin. On the third attempt, I was able to confirm that the 1981 bearing seemed accurate by sighting along the 300' west line of the property to my south which is along the same bearing as my line. But, extending that line along my 565' west boundary took me to just about the same spot as my earlier attempts. I was beginning to suspect that the aluminum stake marking my northwest corner had been moved. This seems entirely possible because this stake is out in the middle of a power line right-of-way that is periodically cleared of brush.

So, on this visit on Wednesday, I went hunting for the far corner stake of my neighbor to the north. His line is also on the same bearing and his northwest comer is only 190' from my northwest corner. Once again, luck was with me and I found the old iron pipe in short order (photo), and by marking it with a bright orange stick, I could see all the way to it from my woods. Looking at the 1981 plot plan, it says "I. P. FOUND," so I get the impression that this corner predated the subdivision that created my woodlot. Again felt like I was unearthing a little history.

Now I had three corner stakes along a line of about 1055' that I could use to verify my compass work and convince myself that I did have some idea what I was doing and to confirm my suspicion that it does indeed look like the corner stake out in the power line has been moved. With renewed confidence, I carefully checked and double-checked the flagging along my property line (photo). I now feel sure I have the line marked with a precision of perhaps plus or minus a couple of feet along it's entire length. This margin of error is primarily a reflection of the fact that I'm using a compass marked in 2-degree increments to locate a line originally laid out with 15-second precision. I called it good enough.

Why all this fuss and bother? Well, I want to locate and mark this boundary once and have faith in it forever. If and when either I or my neighbor cuts timber or conducts any other activities in the woods I don't want there to be any doubt about who owns the trees in question. I was pleased to note that some recent timber cutting on my neighbors property approached but did not cross the line. It seems someone else was also doing some homework. I hope to meet my neighbor one of these days. If we can agree that the line looks good, I'd like to mark it with paint.

While at the back end of the woodlot, I snapped photos of two trees that illustrate the silvicultural challenge ahead of me. The nice, straight tree is a red oak (Quercus rubra) (photo). Red oak is - on a board-foot basis - about the most valuable common tree in Massachusetts. The second big, broad, limby tree is an American beech (Fagus grandifolia) (photo). This is a low-value species prone to defect and a scale insect pest. It's a shame, because straight, healthy specimens are quiet lovely with their smooth gray bark begging for carved hearts and initials and their long serrated leaves that glow bright electric green in the spring. Sadly, I have a bunch of beech that are ugly, deformed and taking up a lot of growing space that I would rather devote to oak. Luckily, beech makes decent firewood.

I had an hour to spare, so I continued cutting some of the storm-damaged birch trees that I attacked on my last visit to Bliss Hill. I find real satisfaction in picking a tree to favor and then carefully releasing it from the competition of its neighbors. I can't wait to see a quarter acre or so of straight, healthy trees all spaced out and growing free.

Next on the agenda: laying out a grid of permanent reference points to use for periodic timber inventory so I can develop a rational management plan and monitor progress. I also want to start laying out a walking path to make it easier and more enjoyable to move around.

Monday, January 25, 2010

First Cut

I took a day Sunday to visit my woodlot. This was my first long visit alone as owner and I was excited to have a chance to do some work. My first goal was to continue the work started just after Thanksgiving when my wife and son helped me try to locate and mark the back boundary line. (See previous post.) At that time the compass bearing we were following from one property corner stake to another along the 565-foot back property line did not hit the stake we were aiming for. I thought that perhaps limitations in my equipment, or maybe incorrect bearing information - such as a change in magnetic declination since 1981 when a larger parcel was subdivided into smaller lots - might be leading me astray. Well, I had a couple of months to dwell on this as I waited for my next opportunity to visit Bliss Hill. I have a plot plan for the whole subdivision and it tells me that the back line of my next-door neighbor to the south is on the same bearing as mine. His back line is only 297 feet long through flat fairly open woods. (Thanks to recent logging by our neighbor to the west.) I thought that if I could locate his other property corner I might be able to see from there back to our common corner and take a compass bearing and use that to project the line to my far corner. Thanks to old red paint blazes along my neighbors property line I was able to get a pretty good idea where his far corner was, but there was over a foot of snow on the ground so I figured my chances of finding the small aluminum stake that marked the corner - if it was even still there after all these years - was pretty slim. I was thrilled to find old ax blazes on a tree right about where I thought the corner should be (Photo), so I felt like I was on the right track. It's fun to stumble on these old artifacts in the woods, and I found myself wishing I had a few more on my own property to help in my quest.

One thing I could do was turn a two-dimensional search in deep snow into something like a one-dimensional one by measuring the 297 feet from my corner, and using a 100-foot tape, and that's what I did. As soon as I finished taping the distance, I couldn't believe my luck and I felt a certain warm fondness for Mr. William P. House the surveyor who placed the aluminum corner stake nearly 30 years ago because it was right there! (Photo) Then, just as I had hoped, with a little trimming of hemlock branches, I could see from one corner 297 feet to the other. (In the top photo, in the distance behind the ax-blazed tree an old red paint blaze and my bright orange target stick 300' away are visible.) Sighting carefully with my Silva Ranger compass, I was able to confirm that the compass bearing on the original plot plan was valid and the bearing I had been using before should be about right - within the precision of my compass. I set my compass carefully and then double-checked my flagging along my property line and confirmed that it seemed about as accurate as I could hope to get it. My line still missed the far corner stake, but I'm beginning to suspect it may have been moved. That stake is the middle of a powerline right-of-way and perhaps it had somehow been disturbed by powerline-clearing activities, or maybe one of the other property owners moved it for some reason. (Idle speculation is a favorite pastime.)

I suppose my next step should be to measure the 855-foot property line that runs along the power line to get another estimate of where the corner should be. This issue is not a big deal just now because the line I am working with is conservative: If the current corner stake location turns out to be correct, my property will be a little bigger than I now think it is and as long as I keep my activities inside the line I've marked I can be pretty sure I'm not trespassing.

What with the deep snow to trudge around in, all this took a couple of hours and it was time to break for lunch. I brushed the snow off some rocks in a segment of old stone wall that is on the property, poured some tea from my old Thermos bottle and pulled out my PBJ on home-machine-made whole wheat bread; my standard field lunch. It was fun to sit there in the quiet solitude, look around and dream about things I wanted to do on the property some day. Near the top of my list was to find a couple of favorite lunch spots. I suspect this will happen after a few more visits and I've had a chance to locate or create good spots to sit as I look out over an area I've cleared of excessive undergrowth and removed some firewood. There's something about the look of a well-tended forest that I find very satisfying.

Enough quietude. It was time to make some noise! From the minute I first saw this place, I'd been itching to cut some trees. This forest has been growing wild and untouched for about 30 years after the disturbance of a major logging operation. There are a lot of poorly formed trees and many trees of low-value (in an economic sense) species. Timber stand improvement is a lot like gardening. You select the plants you want to grow and remove the weeds and thin the rows. I made a preliminary estimate of the species composition and tree size distribution when I was deciding whether to buy the place and I have a general idea of the direction my management is likely to take, but I don't want to do too much cutting before I do a more detailed inventory to document my starting point and develop a more detailed plan, but - hey - I'm a guy and I love power tools.

This region was hit by a very nasty ice storm on December 12, 2008. Many areas were devastated and many residents were without power for weeks. In my woodlot there is an area of a few dozen young birch trees that were bent nearly to the ground by (I assume) the ice. (Photo) These trees will not be righting themselves and, in fact, may be dying. I looked around the area and identified healthy-looking trees that were not bent over and marked them with green flagging. I then started felling bent-over ones with my little Stihl chainsaw, being careful to do this in a way that would allow individual trees fall without making an already-tangled mess worse.

In the time I had left, I could cut only a few trees, but already I could get a sense of what the stand will look like after I've cleaned it up. Wishful thinking was telling me these were the more desirable paper birch trees (Betula papyrifera), but further reflection and the help of my old Harlow's Fruit and Twig Key tell me they are mostly the less desireable short-lived gray birch (Betula populifolia). No matter. There won't be many left when I'm done and the straight young ones are pretty little trees; splashes of white in a dark gray and green world.

It was time for the two-hour ride home. I packed my tools and loaded a token amount of birch firewood into the car. The trip home was an easy one filled with daydreams of happy days to come on Bliss Hill.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Old and New

I visited my woodlot in Royalston, Mass. for the first time as owner yesterday. The primary objective of the visit was to show the property to wife Nancy and son David for the first time. Maybe now we have a new Thanksgiving weekend tradition.

My wife humors me about this desire to have a woodlot, and while my very practical-minded son remains skeptical, he already knows his old man is an oddball. Frankly, most people don't get it. Since the conservation restrictions on the property preclude building or any other development, and that removes any possibility of value increase associated with those activities, many can't see the point of owning a property. And, I have to admit, the place is a mess. The forest was cut over 30 or so years ago and it hasn't been touched since. All the old skid trails are overgrown and obscured, and were likely pretty rough in the first place, so there is no vehicle access. The re-growth following a heavy harvest has been vigorous but unmanaged. In places walking and even seeing can be challenging. I think of it as a diamond in the rough with lots of low-hanging fruit.

A secondary purpose of this trip was to start working on locating and marking the back boundary. Two sides of the property are easy to find: one side is along the road, and another is along a power line. The third boundary - between my woodlot and the adjacent five acres - seems to have been marked years ago with red paint blazes that seem reasonable. The back lot line - 565 feet long - is unmarked. The deed gives compass bearing and distance of the line, and I've located corner stakes, so locating the line and marking it should be easy, right?

I can't see from one corner stake to the other through 565 feet of heavy forest so my plan was to use a compass to project a line through the woods from one corner to the other, marking trees just inside the boundary line as I went. I made a quick attempt to do this last time I was there a few weeks ago by simply holding the compass in my hand, sighting over the device from tree to tree, flagging the trees as I went. I wasn't satisfied with that attempt because as I emerged from the woods out into the powerline right-of-way where one corner is, I missed the stake by 50 feet or so.

I attributed that sloppy work to haste and imprecision as I held the compass in my hand and stumbled through the undergrowth. So, yesterday I came prepared for more careful surveying. I used the same old Silva Ranger compass I've had for nearly 30 years, but this time I mounted it on a tripod and gave it a laser beam (photo). Using a spring clamp fashioned from 3" PVC pipe (non-metallic so as not to interfere with the compass needle) I clamped the compass onto a laser level I use when building decks, etc. I then had an instrument that should have been very well suited to marking the boundary. Starting at a property corner, I dialed in the bearing specified in the deed - established in about 1981 when a larger property was subdivided into the present small lots - and turned on the laser. With the able assistance of my helpers, we followed the red dot of the beam through the woods, clearing small obstacles until it hit a tree (photo) or became too faint to see. Unobstructed, the beam could easily be seen 100 feet or more along the line. (Note to self: Use a dark target next time.) The few times the beam hit a bigger tree, we carefully offset the tripod a bit to the side or moved beyond the tree and started again.

As we moved along, I was both impressed and perplexed that we kept encountering flagging I had placed on my first attempt to mark the property line. I was impressed that I had done so well with a hand-held compass, but perplexed by the realization that I would still miss the corner stake. I'm not sure what is wrong. While I tried very carefully to set the compass to the correct bearing, my compass is graduated in 2-degree increments while the bearings in the deed are specified to 15 minutes. I'm not yet convinced that's the source of my problem. I think my precision is acceptable but I may have a problem with accuracy. Perhaps one of the stakes is in the wrong spot, or the bearing in the deed is incorrect. Clearly, I have more work to do on this next time I visit.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Signing a Signature

"I have read many definitions of what is a conservation- ist, ...but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land."
Aldo Leopold from "November" in A Sand County Almanac

One of my mottoes has long been "Be true to the dreams of your youth." For about as long as I can remember, I have wanted to own a place in the country. It started when I was very young and my parents would take me from our home on Long Island to wonderful places in upstate New York where I would freely explore the woods and fields and study the simple little cottages, cabins and camps. My dreams became more vivid during my college years as I studied forestry and longed to have a place where I could practice what I learned.

Life often gets in the way of dreams. Plans change. Expectations get frustrated. Priorities evolve. But some dreams, even after decades, don't go away. Maybe it's a good idea to pay attention to those.

It may have been on one of those mornings on Moose Hill as I sat in quiet solitude, observing and absorbing the wild world around me and thinking about my life that I decided it was time to act. Dreaming about owning a woodlot is a little different than a fantasy about skydiving. Forest management is best contemplated in time frames that span decades, especially here in the Northeast. By waiting until my mid-50's to act, I've blown it in a way. I likely won't live long enough to see the true fruits of any efforts at timber stand management, but much of the joy may be in the journey and not just the destination.

About 20 years ago, I set up one of those savings plans where money is automatically transferred from one account to another every month. I called it my Dream Account. The amount was very modest, but with steady contributions and asset appreciation (Well, until the market went in the toilet and almost ruined everything.), my balance eventually grew large enough to actually start shopping around for a specially opportunity.

Pretty quickly, it became clear that I would have to compromise on some of my wishes. Here in the affluent and populous Northeast, even rugged and remote places fetch high prices because of the potential for development. Land values are not based on capacity to grow trees or a crop, but rather their potential to sprout shopping malls, housing developments or second homes. My perfect place would be large enough to practice some real forestry - about 10 acres or more - and have a spot to build a little cabin. Most places I could find even close to my price range were too wet, too rocky, or too hard to get to. In other words, in the language of real estate developers, they were not "buildable." The impulse to speculate on land is powerful, and even these places seemed very expensive.

It was fun shopping around, though. I would check online listings from realtors and when I found something interesting, I would ask for more information. It was often hard getting details on properties, I guess because the potential commissions on such small deals are not much of a motivation to real estate agents. I always asked for as much informations as possible so I could find a place on my own, knowing that in one visit I would learn more about the property than any agent, and possibly even the owner. I would beat the bushes and stumble around in the woods looking for old property lines and corner markers. Once I located a place, I would try to devise fantasy silvicultural plans and build imaginary cabins. On the places I saw, none of these dreams ever crystallized to the point that I wanted to make an offer.

One day last spring I saw some listings for land that seemed very cheap. I quickly e-mailed for more information, but as so often happened, even the listing agent didn't seem interested in helping out much. By pouring over the little information I did get, I discovered that the land was so inexpensive because it was protected by a "conservation restriction." It seems the state had a program where landowners could sell development rights to the state and the land would be protected from development and forever dedicated to open space uses like agriculture, forestry or recreation. The land would remain in private hands and could be managed, but would remain open and not converted to residential or commercial developments. Without the upward pressure from speculation - unfounded or otherwise - the prices for these places more realistically reflect their potential for their intended uses.

Rather than continuing to wrestle with reluctant realtors, I contacted the organization that facilitated the conservation restrictions, asking if they knew of any protected land that might be for sale. As luck would have it, they had one on their own books they wanted to sell. After a few e-mails and a couple of visits to the property, I decided to make an offer, which was graciously accepted, and after a few months of waiting for slowly-turning legal tumblers to fall into place, on November 6, 2009 I became a proud landowner.

I have 7.3 acres in Royalston, Massachusetts. A powerline easement runs along one long side of the property, so the area of actual woodlot is about 6.5 acres. The conservation restriction prohibits building, so a cabin may not happen, but it remains to be seen if a temporary shack associated with my forest management activities might not be possible. The land is about 95 miles and two hours from home; just within my desired travel radius. I wanted a place I could reasonably visit on a day trip. It's not perfect, but I'm not getting any younger, and I didn't want the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

The land has 250 feet of good road frontage and is convenient to to town of Athol, MA. It is gently sloping and not very rocky. It was heavily logged about 30 years ago but hasn't been touched since, so it's now heavily stocked with a vigorous, young forest. The land is moist and productive and I have expectations that many of the young red oak and white pine growing there will respond well to my care.

So far, I've been there three times, but not yet as the owner. I have some photos and preliminary forest measurements, but I'm eager to get back there and begin some real work. The first thing I need to do is mark the boundaries. From the deed, an old map and some evidence on the ground, I'll be able to do that. I've started asking around to get some help building a woods road so I can drive onto the property. I need to do an inventory so I can start developing a management plan. I look forward to the possibility of working with some local foresters and loggers. It's a pretty small place as woodlots go so I have to be realistic about the potential for commercial operations, but in the mean time I'll have a lot of fun making plans and cutting all the firewood I want.

So, after decades of dreaming, a few years of searching and few months of waiting, I was finally able to put my signature on a piece of paper and buy my woodlot. Now I can begin writing my signature on the land.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Dream Lives

Stay tuned. Details to follow.