by Briana Binkerd-Dale

Philip Di Benedetto has always been an avid outdoorsman, particularly enjoying hiking, fishing and kayaking. During his 20’s he took three months to backpack and hike in nearly all of the major US national parks, plus Banff and Jasper national parks in Canada. This sense of adventure has been reflected in some major career changes – going from training Standardbred pacers and trotters for 10 years to working as a surveyor while attending night classes to achieve a B.S. in mechanical engineering. Born and raised in Elizabeth NJ, he currently works as an engineer for the US Navy in Lakehurst NJ, just a few hundred yards from the Hindenburg crash site. He has long loved the Adirondacks and was looking for land there for about 20 years. When he became discouraged by relying on realtors, he put significant time into doing his own research online, putting his background as a surveyor to use in evaluating property features and topography. He had almost given up on finding the right parcel before he came across the 38 acre camp that he and his fiancé Susan call Harmony Hill. Phil has two sons, Ian (an Army Ranger currently serving in Iraq) and Scott (an accountant), while Susan has three successful daughters of her own.

While their children enjoy coming up when they can, the land is Phil’s dream-come-true. He and Susan have spent every weekend there that they can since buying it about 5 years ago. Located in Bleecker in Fulton County, it’s a varied property with trails, a nice house with outbuildings and a small apple orchard that was planted by the previous owners. It also has the advantage of being close to town, the hospital, lakes and additional hiking. Located on one of the highest points around that is habitable, there used to be a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains that has since been blocked by trees – however, there are some rock outcroppings and the property itself is relatively flat and rolling. The majority of trees are maple, beech, hemlock and yellow birch, with some large old eastern white pines. Wildlife on the property includes otters and trout (which they stock in the pond), bear, porcupine, deer, small mammals, frogs, toads and lots of owls. A lot of the wildlife is nocturnal, which inspired him to install a trail camera that revealed greater numbers and diversity of species than there initially seemed to be.

Phil has taken the same active approach to becoming a steward of his land that he took to finding it. He found his forester, Ken Hotopp, through the DEC forester list after interviewing several other people and calling a local timber company for leads — Ken is retired but still has a few clients. Phil and Ken just hit it off. Phil is in his third year with Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a federal program designed to improve timber stands through methods prescribed by a forester based on a written management plan. Their plan maintains 70% of the canopy; trees are selected for harvest by the forester but it is a cooperative effort with the landowner. Ken works with Phil to make sure that the trees being cut support his ownership objectives and align with other activities on the property. The EQIP practices can be done in a time frame that works for the landowner. Phil, Susan and Ken decided to break up the work across 3 years, after which they will receive a cost-share payment from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for their efforts.

They are starting to see some results from the implementation of the EQIP program – opening up the canopy has encouraged growth of tree seedlings, particularly oaks. Phil is considering taking some action to protect the seedlings from deer browse. They spend a lot of time on maintaining the existing trails on the property – he has been impressed with the forest’s speed and ability to quickly fill a void when a light gap is opened up. They have been putting some energy into managing populations of invasive plants as well through cutting them back and treating the stumps with Round-Up, particularly Japanese knotweed and autumn olive.

Phil took a Game of Logging course to learn felling techniques and proper use of a chainsaw. The increased skill in productivity and safety has been useful in harvesting firewood and doing work recommended by his forester. He’s considering building a shed next year with white pine and hemlock harvested on the property. He also took the Master Forest Owner volunteer course, which he described as an eye-opening experience that encouraged him to explore some less common practices such as mushroom cultivation and bee-keeping. Phil and Susan have about 12 logs they inoculated with mushrooms and started a couple of beehives two years ago. The bees were difficult to maintain without being there more regularly, but they are going to try again next year.

Phil and Susan have had enjoyable experiences renting out a small guest house on the property through two different websites, AirBnB (http://www.airbnb.com) and Vacation Rentals By Owners (http://www.vrbo.com). They just started last year and so far guests have included a couple from Missouri, a group from Manhattan and others from France, India and Canada. He said that guests enjoy the opportunity to get out in nature and off their cell phones for a bit (an easy thing to do with limited reception), and proceeds from cottage rentals help cover nominal costs of the property such as taxes.

Phil’s advice to fellow forest owners is to get out there and do their research: no one is going to knock on your door and tell you what you need to know. He recommends utilizing the internet – universities are a great resource, and there are a lot of helpful webinars out there. The process of research will lead you down the path to meeting other forest owners, finding classes that are useful to you, and helping you determine what is the best fit for you and your land. Every piece of property is different and everyone has different priorities, but with an open mind, adaptability and taking advantage of the resources that are out there, you can make great things happen.

Briana Binkerd-Dale is a student in Biological Sciences and Natural Resources at Cornell University. If you are interested in being featured in a member profile, please email Jeff Joseph at jeffjosephwoodworker@gmail.com


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