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Member Profile: Robert Gang

by Dorian Hyland

Robert Gang came to owning his woods in a roundabout, family kind of way. In 1975 his sister and brother-in-law wanted to buy some land and couldn’t afford to buy the whole 180 acres. Robert’s father helped purchase the land and the family found themselves with three 60 acre parcels which changed the direction of their family’s interests and activities of three generations. One parcel of the land his father bought, 58 acres in Fabius, Onondaga county, was turned over to Robert in 1990. Since then, he has been almost solely in charge of all plans and decisions made for the land.

His father had ideas about what to do and how to do it, and some of those turned out just fine. Robert followed in his footsteps, working to improve the woods for timber, diversity, and wildlife. However, Robert also chose different ways to manage. After becoming a member of NYFOA, he learned about and attended Cornell’s Master Forest Owner (MFO) Volunteer training at the Arnot Forest. This training and his connections with Cornell’s Extension Forestry program provided a fine beginning foundation to begin making effective, long-range management decisions.

Later, he determined he needed site-specific advice to make wise, thoughtful decisions, and so Robert found NYSDEC forester, Charles Porter. Together they discussed Robert’s goals and plans, and the result of this collaboration was the creation of a stewardship management plan for the woods, with particular attention to the highly variable topography.

The Fabius land is bordered on the east by a creek and state land, and on the west side by the Finger Lakes trail through state forest land which had been abandoned farmland. The private property on the north and south sides is wooded. The slight hillside along the creek is populated with hemlock. At the top of the rise is a wet field where his father planted hundreds of white spruce and other conifers. When these were small they were a source of the family’s Christmas trees. The southern portion has a stand of aspen and the ravine leading to the road has mostly mature black locust. During the early years after purchase, a local bee keeper kept a few hives at the end of the field which provided a nice bonus: jars of “thank you” honey.

On the west side of the road, there’s an area where the utility company drives in with their equipment to clear trees for the power lines. In doing so they introduced Japanese knotweed wherever their tires made ruts, which now requires that Robert spend time, energy, and money to eradicate this particularly problematic invasive species. This pattern seems all too common.

In an area that had been an apple orchard, his father planted white spruce. Robert tried to rejuvenate this orchard with little success, although the ten Sargeant’s crab apple trees he planted for cross pollination still thrive. The old orchard is now mostly overgrown with white ash trees. The land continues to rise, a sort of low hill, mostly populated by mature white ash trees. West of the lower hill is a five acre bench, originally a flat field but now covered with pole size sugar maple and white ash, the result of marking by NYS forester Charles Porter 15 years earlier. Those marked trees have been girdled, cut, and faithfully provided about 10 face cords of firewood per year ever since. The west edge of the flat area has an old hedgerow of sugar maple that grew on the ancient fence line along the old field. Tapping these trees for the last five years or so resulted in maple syrup which he gives to friends and family.

The rest of the property, about 20 acres, consists of a steep hillside covered mostly with sugar maples. A logging road provides access. The soils here are thin, over shale, and thus of intermediate quality for growing trees. The hillside was logged about nine years ago under the guidance of forester Dave Skeval. In 2013, after the logging, Robert started a three year effort of planting 40 hardwood seedlings each year where the timber was removed. Only about 50% of the trees planted have survived despite his protecting each tree with a tube. The mistake, he thinks, was in his tree source. All of the initially small seedlings have died. He admits another mistake was in trying to save money by using bamboo poles to support the tree tubes. Bamboo poles, he discovered, rot after a season or two, and the tubes fall over. He now uses 5-foot lengths of PVC conduit to support the tubes.Robert’s original source of tree seedlings provided relatively small seedlings that didn’t survive. His new source is better and seedlings are 18 to 24 inches in height and cheaper than the local sources. Altogether the number of species growing here is large: the upper hillside is mostly sugar maple, with black cherry and white ash; the lower hillside is mostly white ash, with black cherry, sugar maple, and an ancient apple orchard with white spruce. Around and along the creek hemlock predominates.

Early on his father used some of the abundant hemlock to build a lean-to for camping. The family enjoyed camping for many years until a tree crashed on the lean-to. Not deterred, they built another lean-to, which is still in use. Camping wasn’t and isn’t the family’s only recreational activity. Both family and friends use the woods for hunting deer, grouse and turkey, and when it isn’t hunting season, they find pleasure in hiking the trails throughout the 58 acres. Cameras on the trails give Robert a sense of the wide variety of animals that live there, such as the elusive fisher. Collecting ramps and mushrooms are part of the fun, as well as preparing bolts of maple to grow shiitake mushrooms. There are, unfortunately, people using the land who are not welcome. Hunters cross the borders of the state land, ignoring posted signs. They continue to be a difficult problem to solve.

From 1975 to 2000 he and his family used the land sparingly, mostly deer hunting, camping in the lean-to and collecting firewood. But then came the time when they began to plant a few hundred white spruce and other conifers. Around 2000, Robert planted an apple orchard in the lower field. Then in 2005-2006, the trees in the designated five acres were marked and girdled. A few years later the upper and difficult to access hillside was logged. This started Robert’s planting of hardwood seedlings including black cherry, red oak, white oak, black walnut, and Sargeant’s crab apple. During the three year period from 2013-2015, he planted 40 sugar maple seedlings in tree tubes, in addition to planting food plots and cutting brush in an effort to reclaim the lower field. He heavily pruned the ancient apple orchard in an effort to restore it, though this did not succeed.

Success has come from learning through experience: what to buy and how to protect that investment rather than buying heavy equipment. Planting hardwood seedlings has been the Gang family’s major effort at Fabius. After his experience with seedlings, Robert recommends buying the largest available size and best quality seedlings, and protecting them in five or six foot tree tubes supported with five foot lengths of PVC conduit. Robert has also found that using a K-bar (also known as a dibble bar or tree planting bar) to plant them is the best way to break through heavy soil. In the end his hard work paid off:his upper field is all pole size timber and the lower field is finally growing into forest. Of course, the biggest challenge is one he’ll never win: getting good access up the steep, high hill. Attending to the beech problem is a must or, he figures, that is all that the next generation will see on the woodlot.

Another pleasure he says, is “growing shiitake mushrooms from sugar maple and beech bolts.”2019 was a great year, “early last summer I collected over 17 pounds of Shiitakes.” The exceptional production meant that in July Robert had to stop his practice of force fruiting the bolts because he had collected all the mushrooms he needed for the year. Perhaps the deepest joy of owning your own woodlands is to use ash and maple from your own woods to make moldings for your own home, another of his successes. His son is following in his footsteps. He recently bought and used a chainsaw mill to rough cut some black cherry slabs.

To improve his knowledge and understanding of how best to improve his land, Robert has made use of Cornell’s MFO training, worked with both DEC and private foresters, and attended NYFOA lectures at both annual meetings and especially at the NYS Farm Show each February. Robert recommends finding a good forester and taking their advice, and especially, he insists, hiring a forester for any timber harvesting operations. Finally, make sure you understand the Best Management Practices and insure that they are followed during a timber harvest.

After over forty years of having the land in the family and the last thirty being responsible for it, Robert knows the satisfaction of a job well done. “My greatest joy is to sit in an area amongst 10 or 15 tree tubes with oak trees extending out of the tops while deer hunting. Can’t wait to pull those tubes and use them for the next round of planting. While I myself may never see acorns or harvest the timber, my sons and grandsons will benefit from my efforts,” he said.

As a NYFOA member he attends the annual meetings and has been on one woodswalk. At these events, he’s met his neighbors from Fabius and his more recent purchase in Osceola. As a MFO volunteer he has given back by conducting volunteer site visits with other owners. Connecting with others who share similar goals and a love for the woods is the heart of the NYFOA membership.

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