Westmoreland Conservation District will head into the woods, figuratively, Thursday as it presents its annual conservation awards to a local couple who are reviving wooded acreage on Chestnut Ridge and to a nonprofit organization that supports such efforts.
Lewis and Kate Lobdell will be honored as the 2019 Conservation Farmers of the Year, recognizing that their work on more than 500 acres spanning parts of Unity, Ligonier and Cook townships involves management of trees and the wildlife that rely on them, rather than traditional crops and livestock.
The Westmoreland Woodlands Improvement Association, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, will be honored as the J. Roy Houston Conservation Partner during the evening ceremony at the conservation district headquarters on Donohoe Road in Hempfield. The association offers its nearly 100 members, as well as the general public, workshops that help private owners take care of forests and woodlots. It also organizes field trips to show forest management practices in action.
Tony Quadro, assistant district manager and forester for the Conservation District, has worked with the Lobdells on their forest management plan. He serves as treasurer of the Woodlands Improvement Association and landed a state grant that supported the group’s organizational efforts.
While he didn’t serve on the awards committee, Quadro is pleased with its selections this year. He said recognition of the Lobdells underlines the fact that “tree farming is agriculture as well. Over the past 15 to 20 years, they’ve done a lot of work on their property.”
With the Woodlands group, he said, “We’ve tried to be educational as far as helping people do the right thing if they have a timber sale or are managing for a certain type of wildlife, or helping them with some problem issues.”
‘Our motivation was conservation’
Sharing a background as attorneys in Pittsburgh, the Lobdells took ownership of their Chestnut Ridge property, where they now reside, in 1993.
They weren’t looking to profit from timber sales, Lewis Lodbell said. “We wanted to find a place with some trees,” he said. “Our motivation was conservation.”
“We have four children, and it started out as a place for us Pittsburghers to go with our kids,” Kate Lobdell added.
With advice from Quadro and help from such programs as the Golden Winged Warbler Habitat program and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the couple has begun a 50-year plan to restore woods that have been damaged by mining, improper timbering and proliferation of invasive species.
“It’s based on preserving as much diversity in the woodlands as we can,” Lewis Lobdell said of the plan. “I’m honored to be one of the people to help make the forest in Ligonier healthy.”
The Lobdells have made selective timber cuts to encourage growth of trees such as oak and hickory that are preferred by the warblers, which have experienced a population decline in the region.
They have restored a pond on their property and worked to reclaim a former 24-acre strip mine atop the ridge — replacing invasive plants with switch grass that is attracting turkeys and grouse and also can be baled as hay.
“Switch grass sends roots down 10 to 15 feet,” Lewis Lobdell said. “We hope in 30 to 50 years it will start to break up the compacted clay and let the forest creep back in.”
The Lobdells belong to the local Woodlands Improvement Association. Lewis has completed 40 hours of formal forest steward training at Penn State and serves on the board of the American Chestnut Foundation. The couple has planted an experimental strain of the once-dominant tree to help develop a variant that will have protection against the blight that decimated the native chestnuts.
Kate Lobdell serves on the advisory board for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve in Rector and has volunteered her legal expertise to assist the Westmoreland Land Trust.
Younger membership sought
When the Woodlands Improvement Association formed, one of its first tasks was to address concerns about the growing threat of gypsy moths to local tree foliage. Since then, it has informed members about such high-interest issues as land owners’ oil and gas rights in relation to Marcellus shale gas well development.
Programs on mushrooms and medicinal plants have been popular, said Hempfield resident and association President John Hilewick.
“In September, we’ll have a program on the spotted lanternfly,” he said, noting the invasive pest has become a severe problem in eastern Pennsylvania. “It’s a real threat to agricultural crops as well as forestry.”
In 2015, spouses and association members Janet Sredy and Raul Chiesa earned national recognition for their work rehabilitating blighted woodlands near the Rostraver Airport.
Hilewick said an ongoing goal for the organization is to recruit a new generation of members.
“Our membership is pretty senior,” he said. “We want to gain a younger membership cadre.”
Tuesday’s program will recognize the Westmoreland Conservation District’s 7oth anniversary. Two Nash automobiles from the late 1940s will be displayed, and music from the 1940s and 1950s will be featured.