Member Profile: Frank Winkler

One of the great benefits of the member profile feature over the years has been the diversity of knowledge and experience shared with the entire membership, and thereafter archived for future reference. As we can’t currently all be out visiting with and learning from each other in person in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the generosity of members sharing their stories in the Forest Owner continues to provide one of the primary teaching tools in NYFOA’s toolkit—peers educating peers based on hands-on experience in their own woodlots. The member profile this time out is of Frank Winkler, who as a long-time natural resource educator, and with a life-long connection to his wooded property, provided a wealth of information and lessons learned far above and beyond my request, only the highlights of which we will have space to cover here.

The Winkler family woodlot lies northwest of the Catskill Mountains, on Dingle Hill, in the Town of Andes in Delaware County. It was originally purchased by Frank’s parents in 1944, as part of a 220 acre, 30 cow dairy farm that Frank’s father worked until his retirement in 1973. Early on there were a few timber sales held to help subsidize building a house on the property, as well as to help in supporting a growing family. Several small house lots were also sold off to support the Winkler parents in their retirement years. When his parents passed away, the land was divided between the Winkler children, and Frank eventually bought half of the original farm outright, including most of the wooded acreage, built a cabin there in 1987, and finally moved back to the property in the year 2000. Today Frank’s land totals approximately 110 acres, with about 100 acres of that total in woodland.

The woodlot is on steep land, varying in elevation from about 1800 to 2560 feet, and lies with a predominantly northeastern exposure, leaving it shaded for much of the day in wintertime, and thus unsurprisingly much colder than the surrounding landscape that has better exposure to direct sunlight. The soils are productive for timber growth, despite being shallow to bedrock, and with a fragipan that restricts drainage.

As for the timber resource, it consisted primarily of pole-sized stock at the time it was purchased, and is currently populated by maturing white ash, sugar maple, red maple, black cherry, beech, yellow birch, basswood, with a lesser amount of red oak in the mix, along with striped maple, ironwood, and elderberry, blackberry, and (on the invasive side of things) Japanese honeysuckle in the understory.

In his years spent away from the family land, Frank earned a degree in crop and soil science, which prepared him for a career in natural resources. He spent 32 years working for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as a resource conservationist, and later an additional nine years in a similar position as a part-time Conservation Planner for the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District. In each of these roles, Frank was charged with providing service to the farming community with the broader aim of protecting and enhancing water quality. These goals were met by finding and implementing ways of keeping soil resources, commercial fertilizers, manure, and pesticides on-farm, with plans aimed minimizing soil erosion, reducing fertilizer and pesticide applications to minimum levels necessary, and with appropriate timing of those applications, and by establishing stream buffers to get livestock and crops away from stream edges. As this work also often involved cost-share programs, farmers received dual financial benefit—from the conservation practices themselves (and the increased efficiency resulting from their implementation) as well as through the government subsidies to encourage participation in these conservation regimes. After thoroughly enjoying this career of service, Frank has since retired, but has been anything but idle in the interim, and in fact his career provided him with a very sound basis upon which to develop his management plans and goals for his woodlot.

After extensive time spent deer hunting on his land in the early years, which gave him lots of time to simply observe and so to begin to understand the dynamics and ecology of his woodlot, Frank began actively managing his timber by engaging in TSI (timber stand improvement) work in his woodlot during a brief stint as an unemployed college graduate in 1974. He received some cost-share funding, and DEC assistance in marking the thinning, and in his words, in the intervening 46 years, he simply “never stopped,” to the point where he now estimates that he has completed TSI on about 85% of his acreage. He enrolled in the 480a forest tax law program in the mid-1980’s, and conducted his first timber sale in 1997, when he could clearly see the positive results of all the efforts toward thinning his stands paying off. A second harvest was undertaken in 2012 due to an extensive blow-down in the fall of 2011, and a third harvest was conducted in 2018-19 in order to harvest all commercial-sized ash before the immanent arrival of EAB (emerald ash borer), during which a few ash trees were in fact found to be infested with EAB. Frank envisions the next harvest to occur around 2028, as his stands continue to put on good growth as the result of the thinnings.

Through the efforts of over 45 years of management, and 35 years of ownership, Frank and wife Vickie have netted approximately $122,000 in pre-tax timber sale revenue since the 1997 harvest—funds which he and Vickie gladly directed toward sending their two children to college, home improvements for themselves and their children and their families, as well as a few cross-country vacations. Additional financial benefits have been realized through cutting firewood to reduce heating costs, as well as hunting deer for their personal consumption. Frank cites all the exercise from his ongoing regimen of woodland management as being yet another significant benefit, and also views his time getting away from the world and being in the woods as a vital form of therapy and relaxation.

As for his involvement with NYFOA, Frank estimates that he first joined in the late 1980’s, when he was an active participant in the activities and woodswalks of the Western Finger Lakes (WFL) chapter; he is currently a member of the Southern Tier (SOT) chapter, but has been somewhat less involved in chapter activities due to the travel involved from his rural location. Frank is currently a member of NYFOA’s board of directors, and is also active with the Catskill Forest Association, and has helped to develop several joint activities of woodswalks and sawmill tours between the two organizations. He is also involved with the Watershed Agricultural Council, serves on his local planning board, and since 2007 has shared his experience as a volunteer with the Master Forest Owner (MFO) program. In his words, describing his involvement with multiple conservation-minded organizations with somewhat differing objectives: “I’ve tried to helped integrate certain activities that have been effective from one association to the other. My emphasis has been on trying to get people to develop a better understanding of their forest resources, and to manage this resource to meet their needs, as well as wildlife needs, all while enhancing the environment overall,” which as he affirms dovetails neatly with his professional career objectives.

In the realm of offering advice to fellow forest owners, Frank clearly has a LOT of value to share, all backed by extensive experience; the following are some of the highlights, in his own words, and summarized by topic:

First thing first—on safety in the woods: “Always think safety; especially with power equipment like chainsaws, tractors and ATVs. They are required tools for most of us, but can turn good intentions to tragedy in seconds. Get training, use the training, don’t go too fast and don’t operate power tools when fatigued. There are other less stressful chores that you can still do. Everyone should take at least Level 1 of the Game of Logging regardless of how long you have operated a chainsaw. Like many of us I have the scars and scares from years of chainsaw use. I’ve been lucky. I never run a saw without a hardhat, ear protection, chaps, good shoes or when exhausted.”

On timber stand improvement: “There was some cost-sharing, but most was done by myself without a forester’s assistance. It’s not hard to do improvements with a chainsaw once you know your trees. Most of us will leave too many trees for ideal growth, but it still will push good growth to the best trees. Always start working in the area with the most potential. I have dropped hundreds of low-grade trees to decompose on the forest floor. This helped seedlings regenerate, helped wildlife, and resulted in no residual tree damage from heavy equipment. I have had successful timber harvests because of the TSI I have done over the years.”

On the use of foresters: “I think there are many capable foresters available in NYS. You need to find one who shares your concerns. The better informed you are the easier it is to find one that meets your needs. Foresters have different levels of expertise when it comes to marketing, implementing timber tax law 480a, wildlife, or commitment to work with you to attain your goals and protect natural resources. My forester is very knowledgeable, but would not be suitable for everyone. I like his ability to get top dollar on timber sales, and service provided with the 480a plan. I also need to clearly state my goals and question his actions to ensure goals are met. The more knowledge a landowner has, the better the results. I do recommend that foresters be hired by the hour or by the acre when selling timber. Working by percentage can influence how the timber gets marked, such as marking too many trees or leaving the culls behind.”

On forest tax law (480a): “Land values have climbed rapidly and so have property and school taxes. The NYS forest property tax law, 480a, has been a significant help in reducing my tax burden. It is not an easy program to comply with, but with about an 80% reduction in taxes on forested land, you have to expect a commitment in time and money to participate. It has been easier on me since I can do my own required TSI work. Don’t get into the program if you are not willing to make a long-term commitment and understand the work involved: penalties to get out early are painful. At the time of harvest there is a 6% stumpage fee that must be paid to the county. I now stress heavy cull removal when a timber harvest is made to reduce the need for future TSI work.”

This one is interesting—compromise: Or nothing gets done. When managing a woodlot you quickly need to learn to deal with the cards you have. Trees are rarely spaced ideally when you do TSI. All trees will not be at the ideal size at the time of harvest. The best species are not always there. Mother nature will change your plans with a blow-down, diseases, or rainfall events. It’s not always possible to tie a harvest to strong markets. Personal problems may dictate marketing. Management that’s good for some wildlife will be detrimental to another. Trails cannot always be placed in ideal sites because of bedrock outcroppings, wetlands or skidder requirements. Town roads must not be abused by heavy loads during certain times of year. Work with your forester. Set your realistic priorities in a written plan, and then implement the plan. Many times a bit of luck helps overcome obstacles. Emerald ash borer will probably require me to amend my plan before the next scheduled harvest in 2028.”

On timber sales: “My hours of work in the woods have had their financial rewards. I have had two successful sales managed by my forester. He marked and measured each tree, developed a bid and sent it out to dozens of potential bidders. After bids were received and bidder selected, he prepared a written contract with performance requirements- things like landing site location, protected areas, time constraints, insurance requirements, waterbars, stream crossings, clean-up and seeding. Full payment had to be made before any harvesting. The forester held a $5,000 bond until everything was completed as planned. During harvest develop a good relationship with the crew. Let them know you care about your woods and about their welfare. Mutual respect goes a long ways toward attaining everyone’s goals.”

On trails and trailbuilding: “Forest trails are one of the most important forest features. If you have more than just a few acres, a good trail system is a necessity. It’s hard to enjoy your land if you cannot readily travel within it. If you need to do any work with a chainsaw, trails are needed; and at time of harvest a good trail system makes for an efficient harvest and good trails for future use. Work with your forester and logger to achieve a good network of trails. The old saying is very important- ‘Keep trails out of the streams and don’t allow streams in the trails.’ Properly installed waterbars are vital for long term road use. Work with your forester and logger to get them installed properly. Make sure the waterbars are shaped and located so that you can safely cross them with your equipment. Immediately after the trails are finished I seed them, if between spring and October 10. Immediately means before the freshly graded trail is rained on. I would delay late fall and winter seedings until snow melt in spring, but while the ground still freezes and thaws so that the seed will settle into the soil. Few people seed trails, but as a resource conservationist I want to quickly stabilize the soil, and protect my access network, while providing a food source for wildlife. I have not used fertilizer. I think there are enough available nutrients in the soil. I could be proven wrong (at least in places.)

On ponds and pond building: “Ponds are an enjoyable feature. There’s something about a water feature and the wildlife it attracts. I have a few pond construction tips to help overcome common mistakes. Get an experienced contractor. Get references. Tell him he/she must install a core trench. If they don’t know what you are talking about, they probably do not have the proper knowledge to build a pond that doesn’t leak. A core trench disrupts any permeable layer in the subsoil so that water does not flow under the berm. A soil test should be done to ensure that soils are suitable to hold water. This frequently isn’t a problem in the hills of the Catskills, but in other areas soils are too permeable to hold water. In those situations only a dugout pond into the watertable will work. To reduce weed problems like cattails minimize shallow water under 3-5 feet deep. If you want trout, you will need to have depths of over 10 feet and either some springs in the pond or flowing into the pond to keep water temperatures cool. Bass seem to tolerate most anything. If you plan on mowing around the pond keep slopes to no steeper that 4 to 1. If you want to maximize habitat for ducks and other wildlife have plenty of shallow water and leave large areas undisturbed with shrub vegetation (perhaps mow once every 3-4 years.) Pond outlets must be able to function and remain stable during extreme rainfall events. There are several good publications available for guidance from the Catskill Forest Association, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Cooperative Extension, and online.”

On deer: “Deer viewing is enjoyed by most everyone. Their ability to survive is remarkable. How do they ever make it through deep snow, sub-zero temperatures, and with coyotes in pursuit? I view deer as a valued addition to the enjoyment of our property. However, they must be controlled, if other parts of the ecosystem, and they themselves are to be successful. Deer numbers cannot exceed the carrying capacity of the land. Too many deer lead to only plant growth that deer will not eat or cannot reach. Invasives take over the landscape. Many other forms of wildlife can’t survive in an area over-browsed by deer. Regeneration of many desirable tree species becomes next to impossible. Deer numbers must be kept within desirable numbers to maintain a healthy forest habitat. The only practical tool to control deer abundance is hunting the females. Coyotes, bears and bobcats can have a major population impact in some areas in some years. I may be lucky to have plenty of bear and coyotes assisting with controlling deer numbers on my hill. However, regulated deer harvests need to be used to keep deer numbers within the carrying capacity of the land. Our family harvest about two bucks and one or two does each year.”

Unfortunately, space prohibits me from sharing a great deal of the information Frank sent to me in response to the request that he be interviewed for this profile. To conclude, when asked what he enjoyed most about being a woodlot owner, he replied “I love just being in the woods and seeing wildlife, and how my management activities have helped create a productive woodlot.” And when asked how his membership in NYFOA has benefited him as a woodlot owner: “I’ve enjoyed the many workshops, publications, and friendships I’ve made over the years. I’m a better woodlot manager and hope to leave a very positive benefit to my family’s piece of this earth.” Of that there is little doubt.

Jeff Joseph is the managing editor of this magazine.

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