David Ray has worked with NRCS through EQIP and CSP since 2017 to combat invasive species and revitalize his forestland in southern Indiana
Sitting in a hospital ward following the birth of his daughter, David Ray started flipping through the classifieds section of the Indianapolis Star.
This was a common occurrence for Ray, who along with his wife and parents had spent the previous couple of years looking for a recreational property to purchase. They had friends who would loan them their property a weekend of year to enjoy, but the Rays wanted their own place to hunt, hike, forage and enjoy all the outdoors has to offer.
So, on March 4, 1995, Ray scanned the farm and acreage section of the classifieds and found a plot of land in Jackson County, Indiana with a price too good to pass up. Owned at the time by a timber company who had, “logged it hard and let it sit for about 10 years,” Ray said, the 310 acres of forestland had everything they had been looking for throughout their search.
The property sat a mile from the nearest house and would offer Ray and his family the seclusion they desired while enjoying it year-round. They visited later that week, bought it the same day and have spent the last 27 years transforming the site.
When they bought it, the property now known as Ray Mountain, had no utilities, limited access to the county road and none of the amenities needed to facilitate their year-round enjoyment of the outdoors.
Initially, they focused on making improvements necessary for recreation. In the first year after their purchase, Ray and his dad hiked through the property armed with chainsaws and cut hiking trails for the rest of the family. They then added a cabin with an access road to it, watering ponds for wildlife and eight acres of openings where they could plant food plots for deer.
The improvements have enabled them to accomplish their initial goal when they purchased the land. During the fall they hunt deer on the property, in the late winter and early spring they harvest sap for a maple syrup business run by Ray’s children, and throughout the spring and summer they hike, forage for berries and mushrooms, and more.
After completing the initial projects required to increase their enjoyment of the property, Ray and his family turned their attention to restoring the property in order to improve the quality of wildlife and also to create a lasting legacy for future generations to enjoy it.
The property, which is located in southern Indiana, is historically an oak/hickory forest, but years of neglect and a high-grade harvest by the timber company that owned it previously had stripped it of many of its most valuable trees, he said. Oaks and hickories still dot the property, but they have been encroached upon by maples, poplars and invasive species such as the tree of heaven. The degradation of the forest has impacted not only the quality of the trees themselves, but also the diversity of wildlife that can thrive within its borders. So, Ray set out to correct it.
His first step toward improving the forest was by working with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to create a conservation plan to improve habitat for grouse in an area where big tooth aspens were growing.
“When they came up to inspect there was a grouse in the nest, which was really cool,” Ray said. “So, that was exciting.”
His day job as a pharmaceutical sales rep requires Ray to spend upwards of five to six hours a day driving, so as his interest in restoring the woods grew, he used that time to tune into podcasts about forestry work. They have taught him what work needed to be done and also inspired him to do more on his property.
He also met with an IDNR district forester who suggested that the first step toward improving the health of the forest was to remove the grapevines growing throughout. So, Ray and his wife walked through the woods using shears and loppers to cut down the grapevines growing amidst the trees.
Ray also hired a private forester to help him plan a healthy timber harvest in the forest. During that process, his forester recommended he reach out to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to take the next steps toward restoring his forest to a healthy state and creating wildlife habitat by applying for financial assistance.
Ray applied for and received assistance through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in 2017. He received assistance to combat invasive species such as the tree of heaven and any remaining grapevines through EQIP’s brush management practice. He also received assistance to develop and implement a forest stand improvement plan aimed at oak regeneration on his property.
“The oaks in the Midwest are just getting out competed. Every time you harvest and you don't do any follow up, it's just turning into maple and beech woods,” Ray said. “This oak regeneration has pretty much been the foundational habitat project we've done. I put in eight acres of food plots in a year, but that's less than 3% of my property. The woods are like 97% of my property.”
Forest stand improvement plans help landowners such as Ray address the composition of their forests in terms of species and the structure of how they are growing. The first step of the process is to determine what type of forest should be on the site.
“If you have an oak/hickory forest, there are steps you can take to improve the condition of your woods to make it more favorable to regenerate oak and hickory over time,” said Dan Shaver, Indiana NRCS state forester. “By doing so, you create better habitat for songbirds, for the plants that depend on a more open forest condition, and for the butterflies and wildlife that use an oak/hickory forest.”
Forest stand improvement includes creating openings in the canopy and understory to allow more light to reach the forest floor. Shaver said they start by taking an inventory of the forest to assess its current condition and then a professional forester will make recommendations on needed changes such as removing a certain number of trees per acre to create openings and wildlife habitat. EQIP assistance helps to pay for the forester and recommended work. NRCS also provides free technical assistance throughout the process.
Ray and his family chose to do much of the manual labor themselves and the initial forest stand improvement process took about three years to complete. They culled unwanted trees and Ray also got certified in controlled burns so he could come behind in the areas he had cut and further help the regenerative process. That work combined with his and his family’s deer hunts in the woods has enabled Ray to make progress in addressing all three of the major issues that hinder oak regeneration — deer eating saplings, lack of sunlight and the lack of fire.
“It's easy to think that you just have the forest and you just let nature take its course and it's OK. But typically, the forests in Indiana, unfortunately, had been degraded at some point in time in the past,” Shaver said. “With the programs we have through NRCS, with EQIP and CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program), we're able to help landowners improve the property and fix those resource concerns. Whether it is competition and structure that's been altered over time or if it is invasive species that are invading, we can help deal with those problems with technical and financial assistance to improve that property.”
After the completion of his initial EQIP contract, Ray continued his relationship with NRCS by applying for CSP, which provides an annual payment to landowners to enhance already ongoing conservation practices on their land. Ray’s contract provides him financial incentives to continue to implement oak regeneration on his entire 310 acres. He is also receiving incentives to combat invasive species through a practice called herbaceous weed treatment and he is planting conservation cover for pollinators and butterflies.
Much like with the initial forest stand improvement, Ray and his family have chosen to do the vast majority of the work themselves. He divided his property into four roughly 75-acre sections and is in the middle of a four-year rotation that will take him through every acre of the property making improvements.
First, he cuts trees with his chainsaw while his wife sprays herbicide on invasive species. He then follows with fire via controlled burns. Last year, they also planted 1000s of acorns by hand to create more opportunities for desired trees to take root and create a flourishing oak/hickory forest in the future. Ray estimates he spends about 15 hours a week working in the woods.
“We're just trying to be as good of stewards of the land that we can. We want every acre to be as good as possible,” Ray said. “My wife and I just enjoy coming down and it sounds silly, but she'll spray invasives and I'll run a chainsaw and we'll come back here and sit on the back porch and it feels like we've accomplished something and just enjoy it.”
They are early in the process, but the results have already been apparent, Ray said. They have seen increases in games species such as deer and turkeys, as well as increases across the board including 1,000s of butterflies, golden eagles stopping on their migration, quail, owls and songbirds.
“It's amazing the number of practices. When I started looking through everything you can do for CSP, I was blown away,” Ray said. “If you need any help, you call or you can stop in and they're willing to talk anytime or call you back. It's been a real positive experience.”
To learn more about how NRCS can help you improve your private forestland, use the local service center locator at Farmers.gov/service-locator and reach out to your local district conservationist for more information.