Phil and Donna Wheeler have owned their forested land since 1980, when they purchased 50 acres with a spectacular view of the mountains that inspired them to call their property ‘Heavenly High.’ Over time, they acquired additional surrounding tracts and now own about 140 acres. With retirement in mind, they hoped the land would be a peaceful retreat that provided them with a small income on the side.
Phil and Donna had a sense of the responsibilities of land management from the beginning. Soon after purchasing the land, they developed a relationship with a forester who helped them craft a management plan focused around valuable timber. They conducted different forest practices to grow maple trees for the high quality veneer and opened up the property to local hunting and snowmobiling.
Though their focus was on timber, Donna especially enjoyed the wildlife and birds that made their way to their land. While Donna has always been a wildlife lover, managing their land for wildlife without interfering with their primary timber management goals seemed unlikely, so wildlife management was never a focus.
After owning their land and successfully managing it together for many years, the Wheelers joined the Vermont Tree Farm System with the intention of learning more about land management and showcasing their adherence to the best practices that the Tree Farm System is nationally known for. They attended field days, took tours of other Tree Farms, learned a great deal about handling invasive plants, and learned what other woodland owners were doing to attract wildlife to their property.
Donna’s interest in making their land a wildlife haven continued to grow as time went on. One day, she was contacted by the Vermont Tree Farm Committee about a new partnership between the Vermont Tree Farm System, the Vermont Woodlands Association, the American Forest Foundation and Audubon Vermont. The partnership came together to create the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program, which focuses on enhancing habitat for southern Vermont’s birds and other wildlife. Donna’s ears perked at this project, as she had always loved bird watching. Immediately taking interest in the project, she wondered how they could help.
Through Woods, Wildlife and Warblers, the Wheelers set up a bird habitat assessment with an Audubon wildlife biologist, and both Phil and Donna were amazed at how many priority birds lived on their property. They were also surprised to hear that they actually could help these birds without interfering with their timber plans and other land management goals.
They discussed plans, and found a one-and-a-half-acre plot of low grade pine on their property that could be removed to create early successional habitat, which is important for many birds in the region. The clearing would also create space for the growth of new hardwoods, another potential source of income in the long run.
The Wheelers are extremely excited to provide habitat for more wildlife on their land, while still accomplishing their other management goals – something that seemed implausible before becoming involved in the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program. Through the program, the American Forest Foundation, the Vermont Tree Farm System, the Vermont Woodlands Association and Audubon Vermont are connecting landowners with the right professionals who can help them incorporate wildlife into their management goals without inhibiting their primary goals for their land.