Council Board Member and Longtime Region 6 Senior Forester Glen Roberts retired earlier this year after 31 years with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Roberts had the good fortune to work out of a beautiful site—a DEC regional sub-office on the grounds of the Lowville Forestry Demonstration Area, a 98-acre parcel in Lewis County that was one of the DEC’s tree nurseries from 1923 to 1971. During those years, the Lowville* DEC nursery produced more than 530 million seedlings for New York. (*Lowville is pronounced like it rhymes with “cowville.”)
From 1971 forward, Roberts’s DEC predecessors planted blocks of trees by species to create a forest tree demonstration area so that homeowners could see how different species grow and what they would look like together. (Most of these tree species can still be purchased as seedlings from the Saratoga Tree Nursery.) At that transition point, the former nursery site was renamed the Lowville Forestry Demonstration Area.
Quite naturally, DEC folks at Lowville began building an arboretum within the property to showcase a greater variety of trees, an arboretum which Roberts began to oversee a few years after the 1998 ice storm. At that time, the arboretum had more than 400 species of native and non-native trees, shrubs, perennials, and fruit trees that can grow in the challenging climate of the North Country: Zone 3, heavy snowfall, and windy. Roberts says some of those 400 members of the collection didn’t survive, because their selection was an experiment in pushing the envelope in terms of hardiness, etc.
On the Lowville site, the soil is challenging, too—sandy and overly well-drained. “A number of arboretum trees were lost in the early days until we got better watering protocols going,” Roberts says. “Also we learned that very small seedlings were both more affordable and would establish better than larger caliper material. We just had to keep the small trees watered and caged from deer until they grew above browse line.” Over the years, DEC received grants and hired high school and college students to stay on top of the watering and mulching.
Roberts says that DEC Region 6 Natural Resources Supervisor Fred Munk has been an important colleague, planner, and supporter of the arboretum, which occupies somewhere between 2-3 acres of the Demonstration Area land. Munk was responsible for obtaining a grant from the Iroquois Gas Transmission System in 1997 that provided most of the money to purchase the majority of the plants in the arboretum today. Roberts says that DEC Region 6 Forester for Jefferson and Lewis County Mike Giocondo has also been a great ally to the arboretum.
Wildlife value has been a consideration in tree selection for the arboretum, as Roberts had heard from forest landowners over the years that they wanted to see examples of species that would attract wildlife to their properties. Oaks are an important genus for this purpose. “A northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) was planted as a very small seedling and looks majestic and healthy now,” Roberts says. “It helps that the soil in the arboretum runs acidic.”
While most oak species don’t produce acorns until fifteen years out, the Ashworth strain of bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) starts producing seed at just six years. Its acorns are low in tannins, and the tree is adaptable and fast growing. “The blue jays are generally the first to take the acorns from the Ashworth in the arboretum,” Roberts says. There’s also an unnamed white oak cross—from seedlings the U.S. Forest Service provided—that bears seed early.
Roberts likes an interesting fir tree in the arboretum, Manchurian fir (Abies nephrolepis)—one that has pointier needles than other fir trees, which may be the reason that the deer tended to leave it alone. There’s also a beautiful Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis), a species that is unusually cold hardy, and there are crabapple trees like Malus ‘Strawberry Parfait’, the ripe fruits of which the deer pounce upon as soon as they hit the ground. As they do all over the state, in the arboretum “they like to try everything, like they’re in a tastings restaurant,” Roberts says.
In addition to enjoying watching the arboretum trees grow over the years, Roberts also relished doing the structural pruning on the various arboretum additions. He has a dual Forestry and Forest Biology degree from SUNY-ESF, class of 1982, and credits DEC and the Council for providing him hands-on training in structural pruning and other applied arboricultural skills.
Roberts wants to acknowledge the DEC crew that maintains the arboretum and larger Demonstration Area. He says, “They get sent out to do maintenance on the large DEC forest parcels—over 327,000 acres are managed out of the DEC Lowville office—each morning. On the days when they have any time left, they work the Lowville site and are very invested in and proud of it. As a result, it’s a well-loved and maintained parklike place that people, mostly locals, use regularly. They’ve come to use in a variety of ways I wouldn’t have expected, like taking wedding or graduation photos in front of the block of white birches.”
Because the property is so well utilized, including about two miles of walking trails that loop around, hunting isn’t permitted, but fishing in the pond is. Folks snowshoe or cross-country ski here in the winter. Birders come here to see, from easy-to-walk trails, the variety of bird species attracted to the varied habitats on the property, including seasonal mudflats. The Lowville Forestry Demonstration Area is an eBird hotspot, where birders have recorded sightings of 105 species, including waterfowl, warblers, woodpeckers, green and blue herons, bald eagles, hawks, flycatchers, thrushes, and more.
Roberts knows the birds there well, as he and his wife are avid birdwatchers. They live on a wooded 30 acres on the Tug Hill plateau, where they watch birds and mammals, manage their forest, and do extensive home gardening, with a focus on edible plants and mushrooms for themselves and for wildlife. The resident barred owl sings, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” from the woods that surrounds their home. The grandkids live nearby. It’s a good life for all. 🌳