Charles and Karen Starks

by Briana Binkerd-Dale

Charles Starks grew up on the property where he now lives with his wife Karen. After receiving a BA in military history at Empire State College, he spent most of his career as an internal investigator for the postal service, retiring in 2011. Karen grew up in the Berkshires and worked as a veterinary technician, a book editor, and an artist prior to also retiring in 2011.

Charles and Karen currently own 115 acre parcel on the north side of Dean Hill Road in Canaan, NY, and another 15 acres on the south side of Dean Hill Road (which is land locked). Charles’s grandparents bought the property in 1942 as a 145 acre defunct dairy farm.After Charles’s grandparents passed away the property descended to his mother, who had to sell 30 acres in 1975. Charles inherited the land locked 15 acres when his father passed away in 1981, and the 115 remaining acres of the dairy farm when his mother passed away in 2000.

The property runs up the side and over the top of a southward facing hill, overlooking the NYS Thruway.It’s mostly on a gentle slope, except for one steep section near the road. There is no year-round water on the property, but there are a few seasonal streams. The soil is Dutchess county stony loam with shale near the surface in spots.

In 1942, when Charles’s grandparents bought the property, only 10 acres were forested and the remainder was farmland. The farmland was mown for hay for a time. However, by the time Charles (born 1954) was a teenager, the formerly farmed acreage had gone to brush. Today, 113 acres are forested, with just the two acres surrounding the house currently mown. Nothing was planted except for a few poplars. All of the forested acreage grew on its own from the existing seed bank and hedgerows – though a former dairy farm, there were no wolf trees present. “Wolf tree” was a term popularized by some foresters during the second half of the 20th century, who suggested that the wide-spreading, old trees (often left in pastures to provide shade for livestock) were preying on forest resources and, like a wolf, should be culled to make way for merchantable timber.

The woods are mixed northern hardwoods; the only softwood present is eastern white pine. About 60% is white ash, which is bad timing for the Starks given their proximity to confirmed emerald ash borer (EAB) populations in Steventown, NY (20 miles north), and Valton, MA (25 miles northeast). “I am encouraging understory tree regrowth, in preparation for losing the ash,” Charles said. He also performed an experiment where he took three sets of three crop trees each, girdled them, took them down the following season, and put them inside screening to see if any emerald ash borers hatched out. He did not see any evidence of current infestation, but expects that it will not be long before it reaches him. However, he is grateful that there is no Asian longhorn beetle (ALB) in the vicinity.

Charles and Karen do have a forester – they interviewed several for the position before settling on James Kelly, who works out of Sheffield MA. However, Charles does all of the physical work himself. He started managing some woods on the family property around 1980 after ending up in a writing group with a woman whose boyfriend was a forester. “His back was going out on him, so I started helping him out with the labor,” Charles recalled. That led to working as a subcontractor doing timber stand improvement (TSI) for a time.

Charles enjoyed being in the woods, and after inheriting the 15 acres from his father in 1981, decided that rather than selling it or turning it back to farmland, he would manage it for timber. There have been times today that he wishes he had been a bit more ruthless with his thinning back in the 1980s, but he is glad that he got started when he did. “I had difficulty with being hard hearted,” he remembers. “I was talking myself out of thinning instead of into it, and missed growth I could have gotten over the decades.” Though Charles did some TSI work on the land in his 20s, there was no formal forest management plan until 2013, mostly due to the fact that he wasn’t living in the area until he retired in 2011.

“Some parts of the property have still never been managed in any way—I left the parts with marginal soil for last,” Charles laughed. “But everywhere with good soil has been gone through at least once.” He discovered NYFOA while looking for forestry resources for landowners, and got involved about 4-5 years ago, appreciating the additional information and resources available, woodswalks, and representation in state government. He enrolled in New York State’s 480-a Forest Tax Law exemption program in 2013 and, long-term, is planning on leaving the property to family. “I’ve always liked being in the woods, and wanted to do something to make our property more economically viable for the next generation,” he said.

Charles has made good use of the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) aerial photographs and maps, available on their website, both to track the growth of the forest over time and as a safety measure. He took the original USGS photo and enlarged the part showing just the Starks property. “I kept enlarging it until it is now 20” x 20”, had it laminated, and marked the property lines and my logging trails on it. I numbered the intersections,” he said. “When I go out to work, I tell my wife and put a post-it on the laminate, what intersection I am going to be working closest to, in case I need the EMTs.”

The land is not used much for recreation, except for walking for Charles and Karen. They do have friends who hunt deer on the property, but Charles does not see that as an effective control for deer pressure, which they have a significant level of. “The deer have been browsing mostly oak seedlings; we get good regeneration on the forest floor, but the seedlings are gone after a couple of years,” he said. They do have good maple and cherry regeneration, while the canopy is too closed for pine. He is going to be having a small 4-5 acre logging job done this fall/winter, and plans on leaving the tree tops behind for protection for tree seedlings and to discourage the deer. Charles is also considering putting in an exclosure or two. He continually fights against bittersweet and honeysuckle, and has multiflora rose, but not badly yet.

Charles’s biggest challenge is finding the time to get things done, and, as he gets older, the energy. His 40 horsepower four wheel drive tractor helps a lot, as did taking the Game of Logging course, which he highly recommends. One suggestion that he had regarding thinning technique was to put the trees on the ground from the get-go, rather than double girdling them. This avoids girdled trees snapping off at the girdle and potentially landing on or otherwise damaging nearby crop trees. His advice to other forest owners is as follows, “Think long term. Educate yourself about how the woods evolve with forestry. Don’t have preconceived notions of how forestry/logging makes the woods look better or worse.”

Briana Binkerd-Dale is a student in Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology at Cornell University.

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