by Briana Binkerd-Dale

Sean R. Carter was born in Niagara Falls, NY. He joined a startup environmental consulting firm (Matrix Environmental Technologies Inc., Orchard Park, NY) and founded a remediation technology company (Matrix Oxygen Injection Systems, LLC, Henderson, NV) after obtaining two degrees in agricultural and biological engineering (Cornell B.S. ‘88 and M.S.’91). Sean has a daughter, son-in-law and 3 grandsons from Seneca Territory in Western NY. His favorite activities include deer hunting, fishing, maple sugaring, lacrosse and gardening. His partner, Maria Paone, is also from Niagara Falls and has a background in the food and beverage industry in Salt Lake City, UT and Las Vegas, NV. She earned an A.S. in Drafting and Design, graduated from the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPCI) and has attended numerous other permaculture courses and workshops. Her favorite activities include photography, mushroom cultivation,maple sugaring, gardening and hiking. They reside with Ted, their 3-year old rat terrier, who enjoys sleeping, eating, running, spinning in circles and watching wildlife – coincidentally, Sean, Maria and Ted are all from Niagara Falls and took different paths to Ithaca.

Sean and Maria own 103 acres in Tompkins County, with 37 acres in Dryden and 66 acres in Newfield. We will be focusing on the Dryden land in this article, as the Newfield land was just purchased last year. “I was searching for hunting land in Tompkins County and found the perfect parcel that was never logged since reverting back to forest, adjacent to state reforestation land and the Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT),” Sean said of the Dryden parcel. They purchased 33 acres in 2006 and an adjacent 4-acre parcel in 2015.

Located in the headwaters of Six Mile Creek, Sean and Maria’s Dryden property is at an elevation of about 1,600 feet, with a southwest slope, Channery silt loam soils with a shallow fragipan, groundwater seeps, vernal pools, and one intermittent and one ephemeral stream. A riparian corridor runs through the center of their land. The property line is part of the Onondaga Indian trail that connects Central NY to the Susquehanna River, and later became a boundary line of two military tracts after the Revolutionary War. “It is 99% forested,” Sean said. They are on the northern edge of the Allegheny Plateau with both central hardwoods (oak-hickory) and northern forest (maple-beech-birch) represented. Dominant canopy trees include red oak, red maple, white ash, white pine and eastern hemlock. Other canopy trees include white oak, sugar maple, shagbark hickory, black birch, yellow birch, red pine, big tooth aspen and quaking aspen. Unique trees include American elm, some American chestnut, one tamarack and a very old “wolfy” hickory that grew to maturity in full sun but is now surrounded by forest, including a number of progeny. One piece of bark from this old hickory can measure one foot by four feet!

Understory trees on the property include American beech, American hornbeam, hophornbeam, Norway spruce (seeding from adjacent state land), hawthorn, grey dogwood, witch-hazel and serviceberry. Shrub layer plants include maple leaf viburnum, high and lowbush blueberry, black raspberry, various ferns, wintergreen and many other plants that would require a botanist to name. Planted species include spicebush, wild ginger, cranberry bush viburnum, silky dogwood, green cedar, black and red elderberry, bladder nut and various apples on local rootstock. Maria and Sean purchased the native plants from White Oak Nursery (Canandaigua), Twisted Tree Nursery (Spencer) and The Plantsmen (Ithaca).

Maria and Sean make the management decisions and participate in the work with help from friends and family. Site work has been completed by Newleaf Environmental, LLC (Newfield, NY) with portable sawmill services by Saw It Coming (Newfield, NY). They have a Forest Stewardship Plan written by a NYSDEC Region 7 Forester, with a Forest and Wildlife Ecosystem Management Plan written by Newleaf. They also apply permaculture principles for food production and to improve the resiliency of the land. Sean and Maria attend seminars and webinars by NYFOA, NYSDEC and Cornell, and read literature in addition to attending NYFOA woods walks, permaculture site visits and other events.

Their management of the Dryden land started with a site walk in 2006 with DEC Forester John Graham and writing of their Forest Stewardship Plan. The previous owners had a plan written by DEC Forester John Clancy in 1995. In 2008 and 2009, they were able to obtain EQIP funding for forest thinning and crop tree release. They performed that work with help from hunting friends, along with building an Adirondack lean-to with red pine logs from the thinning. In 2012, a cabin was installed on the property by Woodtex (Himrod, NY) and they hired Lance Ebel of Newleaf as a consulting forester, preparing the first draft of a Forest and Wildlife Ecosystem Management Plan. In 2013 and 2014, they performed mechanical cutting of beech root suckers and diseased trees in mid-summer under a closed canopy; hand pulling and cutting of invasive plants including privet, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, buckthorn, barberry and Daphne mezereum; planted and fenced a small orchard; and planted native plants in select areas.

In 2014, Sean and Maria thinned out more of the red pine stand, milling the lumber on site. Red oak, ash and hickory from dying or poor quality trees was milled as well. They also tapped seven maple trees and made a small batch of syrup; started gardening on a bank using hugelkultur (a composting process employing raised beds constructed from decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials) with aspen and red maple logs, soil and compost; and planted perennial herbs, tomatoes and pumpkins. 2015 was another busy year—they installed three ponds/vernal pools in a wetland created by waterbars from a skid trail; completed a wetlands delineation and permitting with USACE and NYSDEC; harvested red oak with stump rot or other defects and milled lumber on site; and built a three bay English barn using red oak posts and beams and red pine framing lumber. They harvested over 400 red oak “bolts” for shiitake mushroom inoculation and many cords of firewood (which Sean will often split and leave on a pallet in the woods until he needs it); inoculated aspen logs with oyster mushroom spawn using the totem method; and tapped 33 maple trees, making a few gallons of syrup.

This year so far they have tapped 67 maple trees and made seven gallons of syrup and are continuing ongoing forest stand improvement practices and invasive plant control. They are now producing up to 25lbs/week of shiitake mushrooms from May-September. Maria sells them to a local restaurant and farm stand, as well as to customers in NV, FL, KS, VA, SC, PA, and at the Freeville farmers market. Lately she has been producing almost a pound per log.

One of Sean and Maria’s biggest challenges has been hiring trained people to implement management practices such as removal of invasives and beech control when they don’t have time to do it themselves. It can be difficult to find qualified people, and then finding the funds to pay them—EQIP doesn’t cover all of the costs of management, and unless there is a timber sale to defray costs, it can be tricky to budget for. They have resisted using glyphosate in the course of their management efforts, finding several years of manual removal done on 3-4 acres at a time to be just as effective. Sean hangs invasive plants that he uproots upside down in trees to prevent re-rooting (after finding they re-root if left on the ground).

Some of the things Sean and Maria have done to manage their land more efficiently include seeking advice and expertise; working with a plan, schedule and budget; subcontracting work; acquiring personal protective equipment, a professional brush saw, an ATV, a log arch and many hand tools; and taking training courses including forestry and wildlife seminars, webinars and woods walks. They regularly collaborate with friends and neighbors, with many friends contributing labor, neighbors cutting firewood, and everyone pitching in to deer hunt. Hunting, wild crafting (mushrooms, fruits and medicinals), hiking, snowshoeing, campfires and observing the natural world are all regularly enjoyed on the land. Their property is a destination for family and friends ranging in age from children to their 90-year old uncle, and they have gatherings regularly throughout deer season and during maple sugar season. Their property has been a forum not only for a good relationship with neighbors (property access, hunting, firewood), but quality engagement with State foresters, the town, and the Finger Lakes Land Trust on adjacent and nearby properties.

One steward of the land who deserves particular mention is Sean’s good friend, mentor and business partner George Nolan (shown on the cover planting elderberry in a riparian zone on their land). George founded Matrix and they grew the company together over 25 years and were very close. George was a Vietnam War veteran, lifelong archer from Pennsylvania who loved the outdoors, and was exclusively a bow hunter who came up every year to hunt with Sean. “We were exactly 20 years apart in age, but more like brothers,” Sean said. “Every single project on the land that he wasn’t a part of, he couldn’t wait to come up and see.” George was also an expert skier, who died in March of this year on his last run of the night in Telluride, CO, at the age of 69. Sean and Maria miss him dearly, but feel his presence and enjoy the legacy he left behind on their land.

Sean’s life-long interest in forest management came from summers spent fishing and camping with family in the Adirondacks and Allegany Mountains, the writings of Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and Haudenosaunee oral history describing the abundance and functionality of the land. He feels that their NYFOA membership has benefitted them greatly via the excellent network of landowners with experience and access to a knowledge base. What he most enjoys about being a forest owner is “Being immersed in a living, growing forest— every day is a new experience and new discoveries seem endless.”

Maria and Sean’s advice to other forest owners is twofold: first, to hire a consulting forester that talks more about habitat, ecosystem and water quality, and less about cutting and selling timber—and second, to focus on improving and restoring habitat for the entire plant/animal/bird/insect/amphibian/fungi/bacterial community, rather than just big bucks and gobblers. “People spend too much time looking up and not enough time looking down – looking for the big trees, rather than the health of the soils, biotic community and water; if those parts of the community aren’t healthy, you are never going to have a healthy forest.”

Briana Binkerd-Dale is a student in Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology at Cornell University. If you are interested in being featured in a member profile, please email Jeff Joseph at jeffjosephwoodworker@gmail.com


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