Bruce and Gail Cushing

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Member Profile:

Bruce and Gail Cushing

by Dorian Hyland

Originally from New Hampshire, Bruce Cushing’s family owned forested acreage for recreational use and for wood to heat the old farmhouse. Like so many other woodland owners, that early childhood experience in the woods left a deep connection. Later, in the 1980s, when his work required that he and his wife, Gail, move to New York, he said he would never move farther west than the Hudson River. As it happened, the home they bought was on the East bank of the Hudson in the hamlet of Fort Miller, exactly as far as he said he’d go.

For the next 42 years he worked as a locomotive engineer, while raising a family, and finally retiring two years ago which took away the mental and physical demands that had kept him active and healthy. What might replace all he was leaving behind? “Knowing I needed something to keep me physically fit and mentally active, I started looking for another piece of land, something like the old homestead back in New Hampshire. I looked all over New England, until a friend said I better look closer to home since I probably won’t want to drive to Maine when I’m 80,” he said. So he and Gail refocused their search which brought them to 117 acres in Clemons, NY, in the town of Dresden in Washington county about 40 miles from their home.

Theirs is a real partnership. For most management changes or improvements, they both do research to identify problems and the best methods of handling them and then consult together. When one has a greater interest that person takes the lead and the other assists. “Gail and I discuss our goals for the property, and how to manage the property to achieve those goals. She is more familiar with the diversity of species and I get to handle most of the labor” said Bruce. To absorb as much knowledge and information available, he puts in time and energy listening to presentations by Cornell Cooperative Extension through ForestConnect webinars and attends programs that are available in their area. He and Gail have traveled to the Maple Producers Convention in Syracuse, as well as to Vermont and New Hampshire to attend different forestry programs. Bruce jokes, “now I have to build new book shelves to keep all the books I have acquired through this learning process; not just forestry, but wildlife identification and habitat preservation.”

About 2½ years ago, they took ownership of the property which is on a high ridge between Lake George and the lower Lake Champlain basin about 15 minutes north of Whitehall, NY. “I like the elevation—which is similar to the property I grew up on back in New Hampshire— and the small brooks, wetlands, and rocky ledges. Once you’ve lived with granite stone walls bumping their way through the woods it’s hard not to admire the time and effort put into them,” Bruce said.

The property consists of 117 acres, all of which is productive forestland. The topography of the property ranges from nearly level areas to a sheer drop off ledge, but mostly, it is gently sloping. Elevation ranges from 740’ above sea level at the southeastern corner to 1,260’ above sea level near the northwestern corner. It has been high-graded several times over the last 30 or so years, some areas as recently as about 10 years ago. Forest types on the property include northern hardwoods, eastern hemlock, and oak-hickory. There are no classified wetlands on the property, though there are a few small ones, less than an acre, in one stand. There are also a few small streams, and several flash drainages, and seeps/springs.

As a family they have activities they like to do together and others they do separately. Bruce likes to birdwatch, Gail likes to take pictures. Both snowshoe, hike, and picnic. Their first project was building a picnic table that they could position near the lower brook, so Gail’s 90 year-old mother could be with them and direct work from her seat. Last year they started collecting maple sap. They put out 50 buckets and produced three gallons of syrup and enough maple cream for gifts to family and friends.

Building that picnic table acted like a catalyst to starting serious projects. “Once that was set in place, the property felt like home,” Bruce said. From that landing, they opened up old skid trails using BMPs. They used pine slabs from a sawmill as corduroy to help temporarily prevent rutting in parts of the road while they hauled stone up the main hill. They built a small version of a portable skidder pad to access the property on the other side of the creek. Before they built and positioned the pad, Bruce carried all the equipment over the creek and up the hill in a pack basket, wearing safety gear. It was much easier loading it into the UTV and riding over the creek and up the hill. “Access is key to being able to set up and implement our management plan, so we have set about building up the skid roads and putting in water bars to help control erosion from the roads.” Gail’s commitment to creating or improving wildlife habitat led them to enlist the aid of Suzanne Treyger from Audubon New York who has helped them understand the forest habitat to better create and manage areas for threatened birds in the area. They have learned so many things in a short period of time: how to work safely, how to conserve the land, how to grow good timber, how to prevent erosion, how to think long term, and that one thing no one wants to admit: everything takes longer to do than you thought.

After building roads and water bars, the biggest changes they’ve made to the land is the reduction of invasive species, especially honeysuckle and knotweed. Diseased beech is another area of concern; Bruce has been cutting and treating older, more diseased specimens to open up areas for new growth. The access to these areas has increased with the pad across the brook and stone water bars on the steeper parts of the old skid roads.

As much as the trails help, access on the steep terrain remains the most challenging aspect to the management of the Cushings’s woods. Of course, the terrain and its diversity is also one of the reasons they like the land. They have worked on building water bars on the steep slope of the skid roads to alleviate the wash outs and control erosion. Deer browse is another concern. The deer enjoyed unimpeded access to saplings for several years, so there is little growth between knee and head height.

Equipment is vital to their efforts. To become as efficient as possible in carrying out their plans, they have made skid roads suitable for tractor and UTV use. This allows for safer, quicker access, and less wear on the machines, allowing more time to focus on other items. The UTV has been a big help. Tree spades, tree tubes, lumber for the pads, and crushed stone for erosion control of the roads, all useful tools. As Bruce notes, “There’s always more equipment to get, and time to spend working the forest. I have taken Game of Logging (GOL) levels 1-4, and a wilderness first aid course. One thing I learned from GOL is that I should always take a whistle with me in the woods especially when I work alone.

With two extremely active years of intense management, Bruce would advise new forest owners to, “educate yourself to the variety of ways of managing for a balanced forest, then, like the old railroad sign said, stop, look, and listen. Set the equipment down and enjoy the forest.” Northern Woodlands magazine has been influential in his understanding of the whole forest.

He and Gail realized when they bought their land that they would have to understand how to develop a plan to create a balanced forest for nature, and a future commercial timber sale to offset the cost of forest management. And not to be short- sighted, they set up a 100 year plan for future generations. They plan to see one-third of that hundred year plan themselves.

As satisfying and difficult as the work has been, it has deepened Bruce’s connection to these 117 acres. “I’ve hiked lots of trails looking at the woods and thinking about what needed to be done to keep the forest healthy. Now the woods are mine and I can directly affect its growth and condition. Working in the woods is great. I can feel the forest and touch it. The best part is walking, looking, and listening. In past years I’ve helped families having a hard time get through winter with firewood. If the need rises again I’ll have plenty ready.”

Since Bruce and Gail don’t live on the land, they’ll stop to say hello to neighbors when in the area. “They’ve helped us settle in, feel comfortable, and offered advice. My neighbors say there are rattlesnakes in the area, so I should be sure not to just stick my arm in a brush pile; to look at rocks before I step; and that a stick in the road may be a snake sunning itself. They weren’t trying to scare me, but just wanted me to use caution and be aware. My neighbors know when my truck is on the landing that I’m working in the woods, which gets back to my whistle. If they hear it, they’ll know I’m in trouble.”

Bruce first heard about NYFOA at the Washington County fair years ago, which led to Cornell’s ForestConnect program where he learned about DEC foresters, which led to Rich McDermott spending hours looking at the property. “He was helpful making me feel good about the diversity of my woods. He gave me a book on Best Management Practices for my roads and gave me written guidelines. That day I saw a woodcock on the property, so when I saw an article in the NYFOA newsletter that NY Audubon was looking for help with woodcock habitat in my area I contacted them.

Suzanne Treyger of NY Audubon came from Ithaca to walk my woodlot pointing out things that would help her program. Steve Handfield is my forester and set up my management plan. They are two very nice people who I look forward to working with for years to come,” he said.

Through contacts and trainings, Bruce and Gail recognize that there are a huge number of people working to maintain healthy, productive forests, and are grateful to be part of it. “Peter Smallidge has been a great help. He has put a lot of effort into teaching people about forestry and getting timely information out to the public. His colleagues working the county extension offices have all helped get me the information I have needed and introduced me to people that could help. They have treated me great. NYFOA started me looking into forestry with their booth at the county fair. Now, I volunteer to work at the Washington County fair NYFOA booth myself. It’s a great way to meet new people, and to learn from them how they manage their forests.


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