KINGSTON – When the Gherity family purchased 15 acres of farmland outside Kingston in 1973, there were just three trees on the property.
Today, the trees number in the thousands. But to Chris Gherity, they provide more than just shade – they’re financial security for his family.
“The oaks will be my grandson’s retirement,” Gherity said, gesturing at a row of saplings that are little more than twigs. “But if I start thinking about it now, it’s not a big deal.”
Gherity’s property is part of a program through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to maintain the state’s forests. The state provides him with saplings to serve projected lumber needs decades away, and helps him market the wood to timber brokers. In exchange, Gherity follows department directives on managing his woodlands.
“Ninety percent of our state’s woodlands are owned by private landowners,” DNR district forester David Griffith said. “It behooves the state to educate private landowners about how to properly manage their woods.”
According to the DNR, 61 percent of the state’s native plants and 75 percent of wildlife habitats are found in Illinois forests, but landowners often feel pressured to turn their woods into farms or urban developments. The state created the Forestry Development Act to provide resources to those landowners and help them manage their woods.
In addition to creating habitat, healthy woodlands create jobs in the timber and forestry industries, Griffith said. Much of his focus is helping landowners replace invasive species with native species.
“People look out the window and see green and think that’s good, when often it’s not,” he said. “We have some very unhealthy woods around here. ... It’s my job to educate landowners about what they have and how to manage it.”
This year, Gherity and his family and employees took down 90 trees, he said. Furniture-grade lumber, like black walnut and cherry, he will sell to a timber broker; other trees will be set aside to season for a year before being cut into firewood to sell in 2011.
Landowners who contract with the DNR write a new plan every 10 years, Griffith said. Because it takes so long for trees to grow, the department wants to work with people willing to make a 30- to 50-year commitment, Gherity said.
Cruising around his property on an all-terrain vehicle, he stopped by a grove of black walnut he helped plant as a high school student in 1974.
“These are for veneer wood. We can expect to get a $50,000 return on each tree,” he said. “You can’t allow hunting on your land or even be near hunting land. One bullet in one of these trees can take out a $100,000 veneer blade.”
Each fall, Gherity gets a list of trees the DNR wants him to plant in the spring. In the winter, a forester visits the property to help site the trees. The number of trees Gherity receives depends on the species; this year he received 900 saplings, but last year he got 1,300.
“One of the benefits of participating in the program is you’re eligible for free trees from us,” Griffith said. “That’s a big benefit, because if you’re planting 10 acres at a time, 435 trees per acre is a lot of trees.”
Because all of the firewood Gherity sells is grown on his own property, recent restrictions on transporting firewood – intended to slow the spread of the emerald ash borer – haven’t affected him, he said. But that doesn’t mean thinking about the tree-killing pest doesn’t make him nervous.
“That could kill me,” he said as he surveyed his woods. “If I get the wrong bugs out here, my retirement could get knocked right out.”
To learn more aobut the Forestry Development Act, visit http://dnr.state.il.us/conservation/forestry/IFDA or call 815-675-2386.