Forester Lynn Hooven’s work for Big-K Tree Farm demonstrates the benefits a forester brings to timber management.
Lynn Hooven is always teaching. “It’s all about the crown,” he says, finger waving upward at a cluster of swaying lob lolly tops. “More needles means more photosynthesis, and then, more growth.” Understanding the biology behind the business helps foresters like Hooven decide how to manage any particular stand. And attention to the holistic needs of a timberland ecosystem is what has earned Hooven the Forester of the Year award from Timber Update.
After thirty-four years of serving the Georgia Forestry Commission, Hooven works part-time for landowners in the southeast seeking exceptional management. One property he oversees, Big-K Tree Farm, is a fifteen-hundred acre plot near Macon owned by two former Atlanta Braves, Ryan Klesko and John Smoltz. In recent days, Big-K has gained notoriety as a property worthy of imitation–a city on a hill in the timber management world. It boasts well tended roadways, profitable thinning, and flourishing wildlife. This success in unequivocally due to Hooven’s care; but more importantly, Big-K demonstrates the benefits a trained forester brings to timberland management.
“Many timber harvesters [loggers and buyers] are going to do what’s best for a profit right now, but a forester understands what’s best for the future.” According to Hooven, the GFC’s former Chief of Forest Management, a common misconception among harvesters is that thinning the largest trees first will maximize the value of a timber stand. “What they don’t understand is the genetics: If the trees [in a stand] are the same age, but some grew more quickly than others, it’s because of their genetic makeup. Cutting the big trees now to make room for the smaller trees [to grow] appears logical, but it just doesn’t work like that. The fastest growing trees will always grow faster.”
Knowing how to manage good genes comes naturally to Hooven, whose father was an award winning dairy farmer. “He did things differently than everyone else. He took extra care to make sure the cows were content after being milked twice-a-day,” says Hooven, remembering his father’s special techniques. “For example, at night, he’d play classical music in their stalls.” Odd practices such as this demonstrated a sincere concern for the cows, and also a cleverness in helping them produce their best. Old Mr. Hooven proceeded to win more than ten state awards for dairy farmer of the year–an astounding feat. “He didn’t go up to accept an award until the tenth year,” Hooven recalls. “They told him, ‘This is the tenth time you’ve got this thing, and you have to say something to us!’”
Without needing to say much, though, he taught his son Lynn invaluable lessons in husbandry. Attentiveness, for one, seems to be a virtue in both dairy and tree farming: “In some cases, if you wait two or three years to harvest, the landowner dramatically increases their yield,” says Hooven, touching the trunk of each tree gently as he passes through a stand. He is ever concerned about stewarding the land to produce its overall best–financially and environmentally. And without saying it exactly, his teachings on harvesting communicate a sure principle: Timber management’s maximum value is determined by an owner’s willingness to seek forestry advice.
Small lessons such as these are the kind that Hooven thrives on. In the last ten years, Hooven has taught healthy forestry practices to over three thousand people at Big-K farms, educating groups of students, legislators, teachers and timber management professionals. “Ryan and John are exceptional landowners. They truly care about the environmental quality of the forest. They’re also very generous in how they share it with others—they want it to be a place for learning, too.”
“At the beginning of the day, I ask students to raise their hands if they believe we [our society] should not cut trees. At the end of the day, after I’ve shown everyone the benefits of stewardship, many of the students who raised their hands say, ‘I had no idea that cutting trees could help the wildlife.’”
The troubles come, however, when trees are not cut.
At Big-K, Hooven leaves a one acre stand completely unmanaged in order to show what would happen without mankind’s intervention. While peering through this pillared stand of pines, Hooven points to the golden brown mat covering the ground, thick with pine needles. “It’s pretty, but it’s a biological desert. Very little wildlife exists here. It’s an example of what happens when we do nothing.” “Trees need to be thinned so that sunlight can reach the forest floor, and then native vegetation will grow. The deer love that stuff.”
Wildlife populations are important to many timber landowners, such as Ryan Klesko, who says he takes “two or three bucks per year, but never more.” Since hiring Hooven for timber management, Klesko’s hobby has benefited immensely. “There has been much growth in the land,” Klesko says, “the habitat, the tree growth, everything–Lynn’s just done an awesome job. The quail population is coming back–I saw some this morning. But we don’t hunt those, and we won’t until the population is larger.”
Though finances are essential, Hooven sees his responsibilities as a forester as much larger than making the timber profitable. “You can’t save the whole world, but if you can improve one acre at a time, you’ll make a difference.” He invests time and energy into multiple aspects of the property: building trails, planning roads, and solving drainage issues. He’s even constructed bridges at creek crossings for the Klesko family to use when walking the land.
“I go for the ‘wow’ factor,” Hooven concedes. “When I do something special to improve a property, I love it when people say, ‘Wow!’ when they see it.”
Hooven has made Big-K farms a special place for Klesko’s family, who reside there year round. When asked if he would recommend using a forester to other timber land owners, Klesko says, “I wouldn’t use anyone else. I’ve learned a lot from [Hooven].”
But sadly, very few foresters are able to exert as much energy into the properties they manage as Hooven does with his. “You can’t do this if you have kids at home. I’m quasi-retired; I can do this sort of thing,” admits Hooven, whose two children are grown have families of their own. Glad as he is to work for clients such as Klesko and Smoltz, he realizes his lot is unique given the present condition of the timber industry.
In an economy that is myopically focused on the dollar, proper stewardship is often overlooked and undervalued. Whereas the relationship between Hooven and his clients should be the norm, it is unfortunately not. Hooven’s practice as a forester sets a standard of stewardship many timberland owners would like to see on their land. As more owners become educated on the value of a trained forester, in terms of both profit and ecological benefit, the industry will become more capable of supporting high quality work like Hooven’s.
Proponents of this way of thinking are growing rapidly in number, and a new company called Timber Update is spearheading the effort to promote foresters as honor-worthy consultants. Echoing the model set by Hooven and his clients, their motto is simple: when timberland owners decide to steward well, they will invest well.
And Hooven will continue teaching. “Can you tell I like my job?” A smile curls at both ends of his lips as he places a tree-core boring tool into his truck. “This is my fifteen-hundred acre office,” he chuckles before getting back to the lesson: Enclosed in his thick hand is a delicate tube of inner-tree, a drinking straw with rings spiraling end to end. He opens his palm and uses the other hand as a guide, callused index tip running over each ring, stopping every few centimeters to explain the year represented by the space between lines. The tree is forty feet tall, the sample is seven inches long, and, to Hooven, every detail is significant.