Retired U.S. forester garners awards for his nature work around Fairhaven

March 22, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

More than 80 years ago, as a little boy and his father walked among the towering trees of a California forest near their home, they met a forest ranger. He was friendly and enormously knowledgeable about the woods and its history.

The father was so impressed with the ranger that he encouraged his son to study forestry.

Roland H. Ferguson took his father's advice and made the nation's forests his life's work.

At 86, Mr. Ferguson, who lives in the Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville, has long since retired from the U.S. Forest Service. But he is still collecting awards for his work with trees.

Mr. Ferguson recently received a plaque from Gov. William Donald Schaefer that cites his "impressive commitment to helping to promote the conservation of our forest resources."

At the same program in Annapolis last month, Mr. Ferguson also earned awards from the state and U.S. forest services. One lifetime achievement commendation marked his "outstanding dedication . . . helping people to understand the value of trees and the forest."

Mr. Ferguson says he could have no more fitting memorial than the trees he has planted all his life.

He has enriched his home at Fairhaven with a mile-long nature trail and has planted more than 1,000 trees on the grounds.

Among his gifts to the community is a California metasequoia, which, he promises, will one day be visible throughout the Sykesville-Eldersburg area.

"It will be 200 feet tall in 100 years," he said.

Inventory of forests

Mr. Ferguson draws on years of experience as he helps identify and care for the trees that spread across 300 acres at Fairhaven.

After he graduated from Oregon State College in 1931, his career took him to many of the nation's well-known forests. He found it difficult "to get used to small trees in the East," but he spent many years conducting inventories of Atlantic Coast forests and published 14 resource reports -- more than any forester in the service. His essays detailing forests in several states serve as models today.

Mr. Ferguson is still writing. He compiled "By Their Leaves You Shall Know Them," with sketches and details of 20 trees. He also has donated booklets on trees to the Eldersburg Library and area elementary schools. He occasionally dons his khaki uniform with its service patches, especially when he takes a newcomer for a walk on the grounds of his home.

When he and his wife moved to Fairhaven 12 years ago, she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and he was suffering from the loss of her companionship.

"I had to do something worthwhile to occupy my mind," he said.

The veteran forester found the solace he needed among the nearly 100 acres of woodland on the Fairhaven property.

"I decided to build a trail and I didn't want any help," he said.

Mr. Ferguson did accept a little assistance from a Boy Scout troop, which constructed a footbridge over a stream.

The rest he built on his own. Over two years, he cleared acres of brush, removed protruding rocks and roots, built benches along the way and a few short bridges over the stream. He dug furrows to allow water runoff, smoothed the path and filled in all the holes.

"Elderly people would be walking this trail and I didn't want anyone to stub a toe or fall," he said.

Dogwoods about to bloom

"Nature Trail Forest Chapel" is carved on the sign at the trail's entrance. Every week -- when weather allows -- a horticulturist leads residents along the path and points out many of the trees that Mr. Ferguson planted and still tends. In a few weeks, the many dogwoods will be in bloom.

"I dug up 15 dogwoods and planted them along the trail," he said. "I only lost one."

Residents also roast chestnuts that have dropped from trees along the trail.

A few feet into the woods, walkers see, poking through the ground, the first of 1,000 daffodils that Mr. Ferguson planted around a grove of mountain ash.

'Do the greatest good'

The trail winds through a plantation of paulownia trees. Many of the trees, which he planted as 6-inch seedlings, now reach 20 feet. He promises more "phenomenal growth." He prunes the paulownias carefully and lops off the excess limbs with a hand saw.

"It's not hard work," he said, as he demonstrated how quickly he can amass a pile of paulownia logs. "They must be free of limbs to be valuable wood."

He has helped establish a large local stand of the trees, which are native to China and treasured in Japan.

"The U.S. Forest Service motto is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the long run," he said. "I always keep that in mind -- not the immediate future, but the long run."

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