It’s a chill November morning, the rising sun sloshing light on the tree tops. Larry Walton and I are about a half-mile into the woods that line the Nanticoke River near Vienna, MD, when he wraps his arms around a great old Atlantic white cedar.
The species once shaded thousands of acres of Delmarva Peninsula swamps with its dense, evergreen canopies, before rampant logging and wetlands destruction made cedars relatively rare. Today, you seldom see specimens like this.
I’m about to kid my friend Larry, a career commercial forester, that he’s become a tree hugger as he approaches retirement at age 65. But he’s just measuring the massive, columnar trunk to see how much wood the cedar’s added since he was here some years ago. “(I) used to be able to reach around it; not now,” Larry said.
But I also know he was happy to see that cedar thriving, standing tall, promising to thrill hikers here long after he and I are gone.
With Larry, it’s never been “hug or log,” “for us or against us.” Maybe that’s why his recent farewell party was a unique assemblage of the region’s logging community and a number of environmentalists. Only for Larry, I thought.
He could have cut that big cedar and others like it anytime during the years he managed around 60,000 acres of woodlands and wetlands around the Bay’s tidal rivers for Chesapeake Forest Products, a Virginia-based commercial timber corporation.
The company surely was not shy about clear-cutting or the almost complete leveling of the forests it owned hereabouts. That’s simply the most effective way to harvest the predominantly pine stands that are the mainstay of commercial timbering in this region.
Clear-cuts, to most non-timber people, are visually shocking, ugly. Far less apparent was what Larry and Chesapeake were electing not to cut, which included some beautiful forests and magnificent trees, including woods buffering tidal creek and rivers like the Nanticoke and Pocomoke.
Where we’re hiking today could easily have been a giant sand and gravel pit, he said. Instead. it’s a fine tract of pine and hardwood and forested swamp sloping down to the Nanticoke, with an understory of wild rhododendron that will bloom gorgeously in May and June. It features a nature trail now, open year-round to the public.
“A mining company approached us about selling this and forests up on the Marshyhope (a tributary of the Nanticoke, where sturgeon are making an historic comeback). We just didn’t like that kind of future for the land.”
Back in the early 1990s, stung by environmental criticism of his company, Larry and one of his woodland managers, the late Tom Tyler, began opening up to environmentalists, taking us through their operations.
It gave us a lot to think about, and it began to build trust. More than anyone I knew on the logging side of things, Larry “got” us greenies and respected where we were coming from, even if it wasn’t his view.
“A lighter shade of green,” he said he thought of himself. Even as a New Jersey kid growing up in the shadow of New York and Newark, he loved wandering the phragmites-lined local brook through landfills and developments down to the Passaic River. Summers with family in the Maine woods probably steered him to Clemson University’s forestry school, he said.
Around 2000, as his timbering career flourished, an event occurred that would delight environmentalists, but threaten to end life as Larry knew it.
In a massive land deal, assembled in secrecy until it was done, all of the forests he managed for Chesapeake Forest Products were sold out from under him, to be added to Maryland’s public timberlands as the Chesapeake Forest.
“I was about as welcome as a pig at a Bar Mitzvah,” recalled Neil Sampson, a nationally known conservationist and forestry consultant who came to the Eastern Shore to handle the transition with Larry and his staff.
The giant Chesapeake acquisition, which added 58,000 acres, or 1 percent of the state’s area, to public lands, was intended by state officials to set the standard for sustainable, verifiable, long-term forest management.
Larry and his crew “made it happen,” Sampson said. Eventually he and Larry would form a new company, Vision Forestry, and take over management of the whole forest for several years.
Today, 17 years later, “it is a heck of a lot better forest…huge improvements,” Sampson said.
Soon, Larry plans to head back to the Clemson, SC, area for retirement. Reflecting on our walk, he always saw “opportunities in disagreement. But it seems like it’s getting harder to disagree respectfully anymore.”
Years ago, Larry gave me a bumper sticker: Trees Are the Answer. I told him I was always leery of simplistic solutions. But you know what? He was right.
Bottom line, there is no other land use better for the Chesapeake Bay and its flora and fauna. The worst clear-cut, if left to regrow, is still better for air and water quality than farming or development, and it leaves your options open for an older, more diverse forest next time.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.