Film Director, Screenwriter and Author Robert Tinnell shares his personal challenge of restoring a family property to its' original splendor.


PRESIDING TODAY IS: Jeffrey Tinnell, President

bellDing! We’re now in session.

Welcome, all – visitors, fellow Rotarians, and guests alike to this E-Club program!

Remember the Four-Way Test!

At the beginning of each meeting, we remind ourselves of The Four-Way Test.  Therefore, please remember to ask yourself always . . .

Of the things we think, say, or do:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be Beneficial to all concerned?
I wanted to try something different for this meeting to ask an outside party to participate and give some insight into an interesting topic which impacts all of us. With so much in the news about climate change and drastic examples of how it is effecting our everyday lives, I wanted to provide a positive spin on the topic. One that shows by example, how we can individually make a difference and possibly inspire others. I thought this would be a great start to invite our members to not only comment, but provide their own experiences or introduce someone in there professional or personal world with stories to inspire. 
My brother has had an interesting and successful career as an award winning director and writer. Throughout all of this, Bob has remained an avid outdoorsman and naturalist. He is someone who always found inspiration and solace in the outdoors. 
As a kid growing up in West Virginia I was fortunate in many, many ways – particular in the opportunities I had to enjoy the great outdoors and the Mountain State’s spectacular landscape. One of my greatest blessings was getting to spend time at my grandfather’s primitive hunting camp in Preston County.  It was extremely private, populated by large rock formations, rushing streams and an incredibly diverse mature forest.  I don’t ever recall it being hot there – even in the depths of summer it was cool and welcoming beneath the canopy.
In the late ‘80s while I was away living in California the property had passed on to my uncle. The mineral rights, however, did not come with the land – they had been severed long before my grandfather bought it.  As such, when it came time for the land to be timbered and stripped of the coal, there was not much anyone could say or do about it.  
When I went to visit the property for the first time in the mid-nineties it was a shock.  The tree covered mountain was now a giant meadow of fescue.  Nearly half the forest was gone.  And it was not so cool anymore.  
But I still loved the place and the pockets of it which were unchanged.  And in time I was again blessed when the land was handed down to me.  And it was about that time that I noticed that after all these years the land hadn’t rebounded.  The open grasslands of cool-season, matted, non-native fescue was still just that.  No real succession forest had kicked in and what was growing was non-native and horribly invasive: tree of heaven, autumn olive, multi-flora rose and Japanese stilt grass.   I didn’t see rabbits or other animals I used to see.  And like I said before: hot. 
So gradually I got it into my head that I’d like to try to restore – or at least jump-start – the restoration process. And in the doing not only bring back the cool forest but also the biodiversity that had once been a key characteristic of the place.  I stumbled along for a few years trying things.  I planted fruit trees and initiated permaculture practices.  I failed miserably at tree-planting beyond the ones close to the yard.  I probably killed ten trees for every chestnut or oak I planted.  It was discouraging. I needed help.  Which led me to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The NRCS is a unit of the USDA whose “mission is to provide resources to farmers and landowners to aid them with conservation.” Dennis Thorne, a soil conservationist with the NRCS was assigned to me to help me with a number of initiatives designed to enhance or otherwise restore my property’s damaged ecosystems.  
Together we plotted out a number of plans that are supported by the NRCS’s cost-sharing programs.  We started with a Cerulean Warbler Habitat Restoration – a sixteen-acre forested portion of the property that had a number of issues rendering it less hospitable not only to the threatened Cerulean Warbler but other species as well.  A team was brought in to open up the canopy somewhat and to create standing “snags” that would provide a host for insects and, in turn, generate food for the bird population.  I was tasked with a massive invasive species removal – trying to remove tree-of-heaven, autumn olive and multi-flora rose.  I killed a lot of them. I have never worked so hard for $370.00. 
The results from the Cerulean project were positive, obvious and immediate.  I saw grouse for the first time in years.  Turkeys moved into the area.  Ceruleans were present along with many, many other birds (including four or five threatened species).  The clearing even led to my ramp patch exploding in growth – doubling in two years. 
Then we turned our attention to developing beneficial pollinator and warm season grass plantings.  These plantings not only encourage pollinating insects but also introduce a native grass/forbs structure that is needed to provide habitat for native birds and mammals.  Remember the bob white quail?  They cannot survive in matted fescue.  Finally, the cool season grasses that predominate strip mine sites have very shallow roots.  Whereas native warm season grasses put down roots as much as twelve feet over time. And as a forage crop that deliver far greater and more diverse nutrients when grazed.  These plantings generally have around twenty-eight pollinator plants (like Black-eyed Susan, New England Aster, and Bergamot) and five warm season grasses (including Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem and Fall Panicum).   We’ve now done something like seven acres of these plantings and the results are astounding. 
Recently, we just finished the most ambitious of the projects: reforestation.  The goal was to repopulate about four acres of trashed hillsides into a forest of diverse trees and shrubs – each of which returns biodiversity to the land and an enormous food source for wildlife and humans.  First, we had to clear the area of scrub brush and invasive species.  The ubiquitous fescue was present as were the hated tree-of-heaven, autumn olive and multi-flora rose.  And yes, that does require spraying.  And, no, I don’t like it.  But these invasive species are killing the land, killing biodiversity.  So I eradicated as much as I could.  Most of it I did myself from a side-by-side with a friend or with a backpack sprayer.  The larger swaths were tackled by the good folks at Allstar Ecology – who also handled much of the warm season grass plantings with their no-till drill.  
Once everything was ready and the trees were ordered we started to plant. But I really don’t think I had a sense of how tough it was going to be. Because to replant a forest of hardwood trees, intermediate trees and shrubs at this size meant roughly 1500 plants.  And that takes a minute.  And while you are planting you have to figure out how to keep all those trees alive. 
The big push was to get the hardwoods in – 325 trees.  Sourcing the trees was tough – the pandemic affected everything from nursery staff to package delivery.  Trees from the state nursery showed up early. Shrubs from a Michigan nursery showed up late.  I had to buy tree shelters for the 325 hardwoods plus I ordered a water-saving gel to immerse the roots of every plant in (this greatly boosts survival rates) and some two-year fertilizing tablets for the hardwoods.  The intermediate trees do not get as much attention but, quite frankly, we put them in at such high numbers we can absorb losses due to deer and other issues.  
I was blessed to have friends and family help and help often.  The tree shelters are a bit time-consuming to construct – friends pitched in.  St. John’s Wort is a particular vigorous invasive plant that was dominating the forest sites.  I don’t know what I would have done without the help pulling them out.  Ask my wife – she killed a ton of them with a tool known as the Extractigator.  But that’s a whole other story.  
Days turned into weeks turned into months.  What started with passion and enthusiasm was replaced with a gnawing fear that the trees would die before they all were planted or die once in place or getting mowed down by deer before we could get the shelters on them.  You think you are going to fly through planting and then hours later you look up to realize you’ve only planted seventy-five trees.  
I don’t want to romanticize this.  I made mistakes every step of the way even before the forest – mainly in underestimating the work involved.  But each time I made it through I saw a reward and that gave me the energy to keep going.  As we planted we started seeing trees take off immediately and that really put wind in our sails.  Some plants I was sure weren’t going to make it exploded into life.  And some didn’t make it.  But that’s life and that’s nature and as a forest agriculture guy I like to read about named Mark Shepard says, “if it wants to die, let it.” 
At some point I just quit trying to guess how long it was going to take.  I would just go up every chance I had – three-five days a week – and plant and install shelters and tear out non-native species that popped up after rain.  I don’t even remember when I planted the last shrub.  Sometime in May. I know I then spent a few days putting up the tree shelters.  I’ve even been mulching the trees when I can.  Because I really want this to work. 
Sometime later, the NRCS folks came back, surveyed the work and I was approved.  Which is great because quite candidly the expenses were mounting.  This is a cost-share program – you front the money and time and NRCS reimburses you.  And not all of the money you lay out. And certainly not for your labor.  But, for me, I feel I’m getting an extraordinarily enormous return on my investment of time and money.  We planted nineteen different species of trees and shrubs for the project including oaks, black walnut, butternut, hickory, birch, dogwood, and sugar maple. Two hundred hazelnut shrubs, two hundred wild plum shrubs and three-hundred persimmon trees went in the ground and are thriving as are hundreds of aronia shrubs and chokecherry (both of which provide a ton of healthy food for humans).  
But there’s another return on investment I have no idea how to quantify: the time spent with the people who helped me.  Folks bringing their kids and grandkids.  Working on the project seemed to affect people.  Made them think about things.  Empowered them even because they were making change possible.  Just working with my brother and sister at times kick-started genuinely meaningful conversations that I’m profoundly grateful for.  Over these last few months we built new share-experiences and new memories.  I was usually too tired to post on social media about those experiences. But I don’t have to.  I was there.
I’m still working on the forest and will be for the next few years I’m certain.  Deer knock over shelters, vines try to choke out tiny shrubs and the invasive plants are not surrendering.   But at the same time some trees are already emerging from the tops of the five-foot tree tube shelters.  Little twigs of crabapple and Washington Hawthorne are leafing out.  And we’ve had a lot of rain, which is helping these plants get through the first difficult year while they establish themselves.  
I will never be able to properly express my gratitude for everyone who helped see this thing through – starting with Dennis Thorne and my wife, Shannon, who put up with a lot with grace and good humor.  And I want to encourage everyone to consider taking on a project to restore habitat and biodiversity – no matter how small.