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Home » SCIENCE AND NATURE » MASSACHUSETTS » Robert Moynagh: Earthkeeper, Sturbridge, Massachusetts
Robert Moynagh: Earthkeeper, Sturbridge, Massachusetts

By Phyllis Hanlon | December 09, 2010

Robert Moynagh is more than just the owner of his woodland, he is its carer and caretaker.

If poet Joyce Kilmer were still alive today, he and Robert Moynagh would probably be best friends. Immersed in a love of and respect for nature, particularly trees, they could spend their days enjoying Moynagh’s tree farm in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.

A 300-year old oak tree graces Moynagh's property.

In 1893, Moynagh’s grandfather bought a farmhouse and 76 acres of pastureland in this Central Massachusetts town. Nearly 80 years later Moynagh expanded the property by 130 acres when he purchased an adjacent lot.   Always interested in the land, he became a self-proclaimed forestry dabbler prior to his retirement and now devotes his full attention to his trees.   Approximately 15 years ago he solidified his commitment to the land and became a certified Massachusetts tree farmer.

Through the years Moynagh has acquired significant woodland knowledge. He proudly identifies the many species of trees that populate his forest: hardwoods such as red, white and black oak, numerous kinds of maples, ash, birch, and cherry as well as pine and hemlocks.   In spite of his intimate relationship with his trees, he realized he would need professional help to care properly for a forest this size – 160 acres of the property is dedicated forestland.

Moynagh enlisted the services of Scott Gerrish, a Massachusetts licensed private consulting forester, to create a strategy to preserve the existing landscape and ensure a healthy environment for the future.   While Gerrish helped him establish objectives and develop a viable land management plan, Moynagh notes that he also enlightened him about the treasure he owned.   “He opened me up to what a valuable property I have,” Moynagh says.   In addition to the forest, 40 acres of the property comprises open fields, a beaver pond, vernal pool and stream.  

Gerrish points out that Moynagh’s dedication to the land and interest in growing quality forest products is obvious.

“He maintains a wildlife habitat and exotic species of flowers and his property has recreational value and esthetic appeal,” he says.

Moynagh's 160-acre tree farm features trees in all stages of growth.

As part of his land management plan, Moynagh performs “selective cutting,” comparing the process to growing healthy carrots.

“I try to promote the growth of quality lumber so I select certain trees to be removed to promote better growth of the remaining trees. They then reseed themselves. I never have to replant,” he explains.

This method, as opposed to clear cutting, has little impact on the forest and provides diversified woodland.   Unevenly aged, his forest includes mature trees, saplings and some that fall in between.   Additionally, Moynagh’s careful cutting method aims to minimize any adverse effects on the property and to ensure,

“There is no negative impact on the aesthetics of the land.”

Timber harvesting also contributes to the health of Moynagh’s forest.   He holds timber harvests approximately every ten years as a way to promote new growth and maintain the appearance of his forest. “I am not motivated by the money,” he says. “I have enormous respect for the land and don’t want to mar its beauty.”

Gerrish offers advice and assists with the timber harvest process.

“I send out a prospectus to sawmills and lumber companies,” Gerrish says with a smile, “and then Bob and I select the company we want to do the harvesting.”

Gerrish also oversees the actual cutting to ensure the land, surrounding trees and vegetation do not sustain damage.

TITLE: In the spring, salamanders populate the vernal pool.

While the trees provide Moynagh the greatest pleasure, he also revels in the animals that call the forest home. He has observed several species of wildlife, including deer, fox, beavers, coyotes, and fisher cats. On occasion, Moynagh has spotted moose tracks, although he has never actually seen one of these creatures. “There have also been black bear sightings in these woods,” he says, adding that the trees have drawn new species to the area. “There are animals here that were not here 50 years ago.”

His beaver pond, located at the far end of the forest, attracts several species of birds, including ducks, owls, hawks and turkey vultures. The property includes a rookery where several blue herons have built huge nests high in the trees that are scattered throughout the beaver pond. Several types of flora, fauna and wildflowers, including lady slippers, also populate the tree farm. In September 2007 Moynagh was named Massachusetts Tree Farmer of the Year – no small feat in a state that has 514 active tree farms with a rough total of 120,000 acres, according to Gregory Cox, executive director of the Massachusetts Forestry Association.

“His is a great example of what a tree farm should be,” says Gerrish, citing Moynagh’s environmentally sound land management practices and public education efforts as key to his receiving this award.

In these days of urban development, shrinking lot sizes and disappearing woodlands, Moynagh represents a new wave of caring citizens determined to protect and maintain the land and our fragile ecosystem.

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