Peter Tonetti and Maureen Sullivan


Peter Tonetti and Maureen Sullivan

by Elena Martin-Hernandez

Maureen Sullivan grew up on a farm outside of Waterville, NY. She eventually crossed paths with her now husband, Peter Tonetti, thanks to the fact that, in 1967, Peter’s dad retired from the Army and took a teaching job at Morrisville College. Both Maureen and Peter graduated from Waterville Central High School, in Oneida County, in the early 70s. They both pursued higher education degrees, with Maureen graduating from Cazenovia College in 1975 and getting her BA and MBA degrees from NYU. After graduating from business school in 1978, Peter went to work for Exxon for 10 years. The two got married in 1985, and in 1988, Peter began working for Phillips Electronics, where he stayed for 20 years. Maureen returned to school in 2002 to pursue a master’s degree in education, teaching at the elementary school level until they both moved to Clinton, NY, shortly before the credit crisis of 2008 hit as Peter started a new job at Hamilton College. Maureen has been working for the Admissions Office at Colgate University since 2011. After retiring in 2015, Peter has led a peaceful—although remarkably busy—retiree life in Cazenovia, NY, with their two sons and daughter scattered across the country/world.

In total, Peter and Maureen own 370 acres of land, 239 of which are in Otsego county, 49 in Montgomery county, and 82 in Madison county, in the town of Cazenovia, where they reside. The management, or “no-management” decisions on the woods and farmlands are made by Peter, with some guidelines from Maureen. However, decisions regarding the structures such as the house and barn on the Cazenovia property are definitely a team effort. Maureen takes care of most of the gardening and lawn management around their house and barn and is glad to incorporate her love for painting on remodeling opportunities. Peter has gotten a chance to work with members of the community on his forest management, working with a local farmer to revitalize one of the hay fields on his property for four years now and to plow another field where Peter looks forward to planting a mixture of clover and timothy. His neighbors on either side have also helped to brush hog his fields on occasion.

The property in Otsego county, which sits atop a plateau between two valleys running north and south, was purchased by Maureen and Peter in 1999, when they were looking to beat the baby boomers in finding a place for retirement. The several ponds—including a 20 to 25-acre beaver pond—found on the property, as well as the overall beauty of the isolated property, sold them on it. Formerly a vegetable farm, 60-70 acres have reverted to woodland. The primary overstory tree species found here are white ash, black cherry, and beech. The understory is mostly beech, honeysuckle, and raspberry with some ferns. One of the biggest management projects on this property was when Peter convinced his sons and nephews to help plant 500 black cherry and black walnut seedlings, plus 100 white pine and 100 white birch seedlings. He lured his children with promises they would be able to retire with the money made from selling the cherry and walnut timber in the future. Weed mats and plastic mesh tubes were used to protect the seedlings, which sadly didn’t prevent deer from browsing nor beavers from chewing the retirement funds away, but rather than seeing this as a sour experience, Peter took this as a lesson to provide better protection from deer browse.

In 2007, they purchased the Montgomery county property, which was just as mesmerizing, bisected by a seasonal road, with half the property west of the road being sloping land, on the edge of the Mohawk River Valley. The half east of the road has a stream in a canyon with steep sides and a spectacular 50-foot waterfall. A couple of books listing NY state waterfalls include this waterfall. As an abandoned farm, most of the land has reverted to woods. Here, elm and hemlock dominate the overstory. Elm trees also make up a lot of the understory, but unfortunately they succumb to Dutch elm disease before getting very large. The property also struggles with the presence of well-established invasive species such as multiflora rose, honeysuckle, and garlic mustard.

In March 2013, Peter and Maureen purchased 57 acres including an old farmhouse and large barn in Madison County from Cornell University. Over the next seven months, Peter and Maureen had the old farmhouse renovated. In early 2014, Peter carried out a small timber sale to thin some of the woods to promote growth by primarily removing ash trees before they became infested with EAB. From this experience, he learned it’s better to be patient and have a full understanding of the management goals for your property before acting. He did not know what the acronym TSI meant.

Between 2015 and 2016, old roads and trails were cleared by mechanically pulling honeysuckle, and in other areas seedlings were planted. Peter has learned he needs to do a better job of protecting the seedlings from browsing, as otherwise he was “just feeding the deer” with them, and that he needs to ensure they get enough sunlight. This learning is a work in progress. In 2016, Pete and Maureen purchased 25 additional acres from Cornell. In 2018, the transite (an asbestos cement fiber board) in the barn was remediated, an expensive process. In 2019, Peter and Maureen renovated a portion of the barn to provide guest space, and they also hosted the fifth annual NYFOA Chair Camp.

The Madison county property is comprised of three lots, all subject to a 2003 conservation easement. Before this easement, the old farmland had mostly reverted to woodland and had been logged. Today, about 50 of the 82 acres are woodland, with very good soils and a flat to gently sloping topography. Two designated trout streams run through the property and Peter has his eye on the potential of small springs and wet areas in the property as pond sites. The overstory of this property is diverse, with the main species being sugar maple, white ash, and white pine. The understory is dominated by white ash, beech, sugar maple, and black cherry. Honeysuckle is the most pervasive invasive species on this property. While Peter hasn’t found any definitive evidence, he believes that the emerald ash borer may be present on the property, especially since infestations have been identified within 3 miles of the property.

Across all three properties, but primarily in Cazenovia, friends and family participate in deer hunting during the fall, though their success is not enough to provide meaningful control of the deer population. Due to its beautiful waterfall and mostly unmanaged nature, the Montgomery property is used primarily as a recreational spot, where family and friends camp and swim on occasion. One of the recreational aspects that Peter appreciates the most about being a woodlot owner is nature-watching, whether when standing still in a tree stand while bow hunting or when he and Maureen are walking around their property. Their trail camera recently caught images of a local family of red foxes. This is one of the main things that has helped to keep them sane during self-quarantine. Peter’s future plans include putting nesting boxes on the Otsego property to attract wood ducks for hunting.

Since the Otsego property is the one Peter and Maureen have owned the longest, it is the one where changes have been the most noticeable and significant across the years, mainly due to the active presence of the beavers, which are ecosystem engineers. Unfortunately, the heavy rains brought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 washed away the beaver dams that had created the large 25 acre pond. By the next year, however, the beavers had managed to largely restore their ecosystem. Also, as succession continues to take place on the property, it has brought an undesirable spread of honeysuckle.

In managing so much woodland, Peter has found having too many items on his to-do list to be his biggest challenge and believes that creating a management plan with a detailed work schedule would be a great benefit. A tractor (with a bucket, forks, a York rake and a brush hog), is the main tool Peter uses to make his management more efficient, along with a couple of chain saws. He does regret not getting a bigger tractor. His 30HP New Holland doesn’t have enough power to accomplish a lot of tasks. Peter would advise other forest owners to: 1) take the MFO course and become an active volunteer, 2) become a member of NYFOA, 3) go on wood walks to see what other NYFOA members do, 4) take at least the Game of Logging I course, 5) get to know your land before starting any major projects, and 6) put a stewardship or management plan in place. Ideally, he would say to follow them in this order and prioritize projects that are the most important or urgent. Peter admits that the relationship with the land trust holding the conservation easement on the Cazenovia property has been rocky. He would caution anyone considering a conservation easement that it is very difficult to anticipate and plan for issues that may arise in the future and address them in the easement. Forever is a long time.

Guiding them through their management journey, Peter finds the best sources of information have been the training programs he previously mentioned. More casually, Peter has also found fellow NYFOA members and wood walks to be great sources of information. For example, the five-foot welded wire enclosures he uses to protect his seedlings were derived from seeing what other NYFOA members had done in regards to this issue. Additionally, Peter has found the Forest Owner magazine, along with the ForestConnect monthly webinars from Cornell University to be valuable sources of information.

As a kid, Peter travelled all over the country due to his father being in the US Army, and the constant camping, fishing, and hunting that he had access to as well as farm work in high school sparked an interest in owning his own land from anearly age. What Peter enjoys most about being a forest owner is being able to work on the land and witness the constant change in the natural ecosystem, especially when those changes are the result of his management practices. He and Maureen would like to leave the land as a legacy to their children and grandchildren (hopefully someday).

Elena Martin-Hernandez is an Environment and Sustainability major at Cornell University in the Department of Natural Resources where she also works as a ForrestConnect Program Assistant, Ithaca, N. Y. Support provided by USDA NIFA and the Renewable Resources Extension Act.

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