FREE PRESS AG FOCUS- State’s first city-owned tree farm to yield tall harvest

To hear Leonard Ellis of Florence tell it, he cares about trees more than any tree-hugging environmentalist who fights tooth-and-nail for their survival.

That’s because, Ellis said, he understands the value-both to trees and to their buyers-of harvesting timber at the proper time.

So that makes him a pretty happy tree-harvester these days, having just been guaranteed the chance to plant nearly 2,000 hardwood seedlings on Florence property this spring-on the first city-owned tree farm in Kansas.

Ellis, 65, is thrilled about the opportunity even though he knows it will be at least 2040 before the first of multiple tree harvests.

“I know I’m not going to live long enough to see it harvested, but it’s a worthwhile project,” he said.

Ellis has dreamed of having just such a farm to grow and harvest the American black walnut tree ever since he moved to Florence in 1964 and saw the fertile area of the Cottonwood River basin in the northeast section of town.

“The city has owned this property ever since I’ve lived here,” he said. “But nobody ever did anything with it-it’s had all kinds of dead trees on it (and) all kinds of trash and junk piled in it.”

And now, as chairman of the Kansas Tree Farm Committee and vice president of Kansas Forest Products Association, the man who has lived and breathed timber for 40 years finally has the chance to make his dream a reality.

A year of preparation

A $3,257 grant from the privately funded Hardwood Forestry Fund will allow the city of Florence to purchase 1,800 seedlings from Kansas Forest Service of Manhattan.

Ellis filed the first application for the grant in March, he said.

But to qualify for the grant, Florence’s 18.5 acres of timbered land first had to be certified by the American Tree Farm System.

Until now, Kansas had 115 privately-owned, certified tree farms but none owned by a municipality.

And while Ellis was notified in August that the land had met certification requirements-making Florence the first Kansas municipality to have a city-owned tree farm-it wasn’t until last month that the city received notification that it had received the grant money to do anything about it.

But that didn’t keep Ellis from spending his own time and money over the better part of this year cleaning up the land to prepare it for the anticipated planting.

He credits Florence residents Joe Heath, Dale Miller, Alan Hayes and Dale Hayes for putting in the hours to help him clean up the site, prepare the soil for planting and even plant about 10,000 walnuts they already had on hand.

They’ve also cleared the junk off of another 10 or so acres of tillable but currently timberless ground that Ellis hopes can also eventually be planted with walnut trees.

“There’s about five of us that have worked real steady on it,” Ellis said. “We’ve done more than $3,000 worth of site preparation.”

But that money won’t make it back into their pockets even though the city’s gotten the grant.

“In fact, I’m contributing dollars out of my pocket almost every day,” Ellis said.

It’s been worth the time and money to Ellis to finally get this project off the ground, he said.

“This is something I really felt like needed to be done 25 to 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s taken a while.”

For the first time in 40 years, Ellis said Florence has had a council and a mayor, Sue Klassen, who all agreed with him about the city’s need to manage its timber.

But he had to help them use timber management to deal with a more pressing need in order to convince them of that, he said.

“They couldn’t get any southerly wind on the sewer pond area, so they weren’t getting any evaporation,” he said.

“I told them we could get evaporation if we cleaned some of the trees off of there.

“That’s what actually started them into thinking into trying to manage their timber and actually doing something with it,” he said.

A man of many seasons

It’s not surprising that Ellis then was able to sell the council on the idea of a tree farm-the man’s enthusiasm for timber is contagious and his experience in the industry impressive.

Trees have held a fascination for Ellis since childhood, he said, but it wasn’t until he got out of the Air Force in 1962 that circumstances led him to the timber-buying industry as a profession.

When Ellis’s uncle needed some timber cut down on his Missouri property in a hurry, he offered Ellis the chance to take and sell any timber he could cut down himself.

“I went down there and got a lot of experience in a short period of time,” Ellis said. “It was a very trying learning experience for me.

“That just sparked the interest even more, and from that time on, I have bought timber and sold logs.”

The career move led Ellis to Florence in 1964, he said, when he stopped in at the city’s railhead to lease a holding area for timber he had just bought from a property owner near DeGraff.

Ellis had been on his way to Salina to cut logs when the fertile timbered area surrounding Florence caught his eye.

“I started coming north on Highway 77 and I started seeing all these walnut tops,” he said.

Ellis was informed at the railroad depot that he could use the holding area at no charge, and that was all it took to convince Ellis to stick around for a while.

“Everything worked together to bring me to Florence,” he said.

“So I stayed here.”

But while he spends much of the winter harvesting timber, Ellis said his springtimes are largely devoted to reforestation.

“I’ve planted thousand of seedlings throughout the state on privately owned property in the last 25 years,” he said. “I probably have replanted, trimmed and pruned more walnut trees than I’ve harvested in my lifetime.”

Ellis’ varied seasonal work also includes combining the native grass seed in five area counties during the summer and fall.

“It’s been a year-round deal,” he said. “I like variety in my life.”

A tree of superior stock

But there’s no doubt that the American black walnut is what’s sustained Ellis’ forestry career, and that’s why he wouldn’t choose anything else for Florence’s tree farm.

“The demand for black walnut has always been good and will always be good,” he said. “That’s where the dollars are at.”

And for good reason-it makes some of the highest-quality lumber for use in everything from gunstock and grand pianos to furniture and plywood paneling.

“Black walnut is to a man what a diamond is to a woman,” he said.

“If he’s going to buy a new rifle, and it’s going to cost him $50 more for a black walnut stock over a maple stock, he’ll usually spend the extra $50 to get the walnut.”

Not only that, but Florence’s land is perfectly suited to grow black walnut, Ellis said.

“I figured that if we did this, we ought to plant the best suited for the soil and the best suited for the environmental conditions, which is walnut,” he said. “This whole Cottonwood River basin-it’s ideal for growing black walnut.”

A lesson in harvesting timber

Planting is planned for Saturday, March 25, in a day-long event that will also serve as a work seminar for private-property owners to learn how to properly plant, manage and harvest timber.

Volunteers from several timber organizations-including Kansas Forest Products Association, and Kansas Tree Farm Committee-will help plant the seedlings and offer lessons in reforesting, pruning and trimming, falling trees and using equipment safely.

American Walnut Co. of Kansas City will likely have a buyer present to teach property owners how to grade trees and how to determine which are ready to harvest.

Visitors also will be able to see that several acres of the city’s property have already been planted with about 4,000 walnuts per acre.

“In areas that can’t be mowed, we’ve planted the nuts extremely close,” Ellis said.

“You can only expect 60 percent germination, and then rabbits will eat off 10 percent of them and deer will damage 10 percent-so about 40 percent will grow and flourish.”

In other areas, seedlings will be planted nine feet apart with room for Ellis to mow between them-at least for the first several years.

“Once the trees get 10 to 12 feet tall and you have canopy closure, you’re going to have shade on the ground and weeds and grass aren’t going to grow so good,” he said.

Until then, what Ellis called “junk species” of trees and plants must be cleared from within 12 feet of the base and two feet of the crown if the tree is to reach maximum growth potential, he said.

Ellis said he hopes to have enough volunteers to help him with pruning and trimming-and eventually take over the entire management process for him when he and his helpers can’t anymore.

“Once the trees are planted and established, we’re hoping that there’s no more costs to maintaining them,” he said.

Ellis said it won’t take too long to see some tangible results of this labor-in about 10 to 12 years, the city can begin annually harvesting and selling walnuts to Hammond Walnut Co. in Stockton, Mo.

And another 150 to 200 trees already growing on the city’s land can be harvested for their wood in the next 15 to 18 years, he said.

Then in another 25 to 30 years, the trees planted this fall and spring will reach about 16 inches in diameter, the optimal size to begin harvesting them and selling the timber to American Walnut Co.

But there’s only a window of about 10 years before the trees then begin to decrease in quality.

“By the time they get to be 18 inches in diameter, they get pretty tall and the wind blows them back and forth,” he said. “That will actually break apart the growth rings in the tree, and it will fall apart when made into boards.”

And within these harvestable years is only a brief time frame in each spring during which to actually cut down the tree, Ellis said.

“Between the time a walnut tree starts to bud out and the time it gets fully leafed out, we have about a 40-to-45-day window,” he said.

A tree cut within this time frame will produce several new tree sprouts around the base of the stump, Ellis said, one of which can be allowed to grow into a new tree.

“You can produce some better quality wood from the second or third cutting off that root system than what the original cutting was, because you have now a large root system feeding a little sprout.”

A proper time to harvest

It’s possible that to some, all this talk of cutting down trees for money makes Ellis sound a little heartless, but he’s adamant that he has the trees’ best interest at heart.

“People say, ‘Well, how can you cut them down if you love them?'” Ellis said. “I cut them down because I don’t want to see them rot away-there’s a proper time to harvest anything.”

And that’s a message that he’s all too eager to pass on to individuals and cities with unmanaged timber on their property.

“Everyone who owns timber needs to take an interest in it,” he said. “Timber is America’s renewable resource, and it will renew itself within a human lifetime if it is managed and taken care of.”

Such management was common up through the 1940s when farmers burned wood for heat, Ellis said, until natural gas and propane became readily available.

“When they quit burning wood, then they let their timber go to pot,” he said. “So consequently, you have dead and dying trees.”

Ellis said it’s a need for immediate gratification that ultimately is keeping property owners from investing in the future of timber.

“People are reluctant to put forth the effort today or tomorrow if it’s going to be 20 years before they get a return on their investments,” he said.

Ellis hopes to set a positive example with the time and money he’s put into not only planting and managing timber on Florence property but on his own as well.

Ellis planted about 12,000 walnuts on his own land this fall, and while he’s not likely to live to see it harvested, he hopes to be around to see canopy closure, he said.

“It’s not something I believe in just for the city,” he said. “I believe in it on my own property as well.”

And chances are he won’t change his mind any time soon about the industry-he’s invested more than half of his life in it.

“It’s been my life,” he said. “I live and breathe the timber.”

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