The Eastern Shore's largest private landholder says it's found a way to cut down trees and preserve forests at the same time. And it's winning the grudging admiration of a number of conservationists

INTO THE WOODS

June 18, 1995|By Tom Horton

You meet Tom Tyler early. He's going to take you for a walk in his woods on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and you're going to need all day to see even part of it. A couple days would be better, he says; an airplane better yet, or even a satellite shot of the Chesapeake Bay region. It's a good-sized woods.

On this and subsequent travels, Mr. Tyler will show you hidden spots of well-preserved natural beauty the equal of Maryland's finest public parks; also large tracts that most people, he thinks, would say "look like hell -- like rape." It is fair to say that he is proud of both the beautiful and the seemingly ugly.

There is nothing simple about these vast forest lands; or about Mr. Tyler, who harbors deep suspicions about the environmental movement's agenda for private property, yet has become a key and valued player in one of the more ambitious environmental projects on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Indeed, these are turbulent times for those who manage any lands, forest or otherwise. Environmentalists and natural resources managers increasingly link land use to water quality. They implicate runoff from farms, development and timbering in the decline of Chesapeake fisheries; and they back measures to halt continuing losses of the woods and wetlands that buffer waterways from pollution and harbor endangered plants and animals.

At the same time there is a swelling wave of opposition across the nation to more public say over land use. It comes from "private property rights" activists, who are strongest in rural areas like the Eastern Shore. They include small landowners, developers, builders, farmers -- also timber and mining and off-road-vehicle interests.

Where do the private rights of land use end and public obligations for environmental protection begin? With anti-environmentalism at a modern-day high in the 104th Congress, common ground is not in sight.

Which brings us back to Tom Tyler and his woods, and to some hope. The Dorchester County native, 53, is a regional forest manager for the Woodlands Division of Chesapeake Forest Products, which is part of the Virginia-based Chesapeake Corp., a Fortune 500, paper-and-packaging giant. To get pulpwood and timber, Chesapeake owns and manages about 330,000 acres -- some 500 square miles -- mostly in the drainage basin of the bay and its tributary rivers. Baltimore City, by comparison, covers about 78 square miles; Baltimore County about 600.

'A first-class operation'

The company's property on Delmarva -- 80,000 acres, three-quarters of that in Maryland -- makes it the Shore's largest private landholder. Tom Tyler would like to convince you, tree hugger or otherwise, that the land could not be in better hands.

First stop is a forest dominated by loblolly pine, between Salisbury and Ocean City, in the headwaters drainage of the Pocomoke River. Mr. Tyler points to where heavy oaken "mats," each 10-by-14 feet and capable of supporting 80,000 pounds, have been placed at the entrance of a logging road. They let heavy equipment roll across low areas without eroding soil into wetlands. Each one costs $128, and Chesapeake has bought about a million dollars worth of them in the last few years. None of this is required by law, Mr. Tyler says; rather it is part of his company's commitment to "a first-class operation -- from our loggers, to our roads, to getting all our permits."

"Look," he says, "we were environmentally sensitive at Chesapeake a long time before it began to get chic. Because we were already doing it, it flat-out offended me when some of these environmental rules and regulations [regarding forestry practices] came out; and yes, some of it was brought on by the way the damn idiots in our own industry operate." Mr. Tyler talks fast for an Eastern Shoreman, with a passion that is never far beneath the surface. Later on, he mentions he has been taking a course at a local college -- on "how to channel your anger."

The forest here is being thinned, to enhance growth of the best trees, which will be cut decades from now. If you expect to see hordes of sturdy, sweaty men with chain saws, you would be disappointed. "This is the future of forestry," Mr. Tyler says.

So quiet inside

The whole job today consists of a single man, seated in the heated, air-conditioned cab of a machine the size of a large tractor. It is so quiet inside, you can hear the computer-linked keyboard click beneath the operator's fingers. He controls twin pincers, large enough to encircle a couple of people, that extend from the machine's long, articulated arm. They can grasp anything from saplings to mature trees 50 feet or more in height and 20 inches in diameter. A saw extending below the pincers slices through the tree's base as if it were cheese. Rotating drums strip away the limbs and, simultaneously, the tree is sawed into logs, in lengths determined by the on-board computer -- long for the lumber and short for pulpwood.

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