Family Forest Blog

Announcing the 2021 Regional Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year

Cristina Zepeda-Almazan

September 9, 2021

ATFS Sign In Woods

Each year, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), a program of the American Forest Foundation, celebrates the work being done by ATFS-certified landowners with the Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year (OTFY) Award. This award recognizes landowners that have demonstrated an exceptional commitment to caring for their forests and leadership in educating communities about the importance of conservation of family-owned forests. Nominees are selected from 4 regions across the United States: West, Northcentral, Northeast, and Southern.  

A selection committee made up of volunteer stakeholders and partners from AFF’s network reviews nominations and selects 2 finalists from each region, who receive visits from committee members during the summer season. Of these, one landowner is selected as the Regional Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year. AFF is proud to recognize the following Tree Farmers from each region who exemplify strong commitment to a diverse set of objectives promoting forest health and family and community well-being. 

This year's nominees are...

Jim Watson and Carol Bibler for the Western Region 

Jim Watson and Carol Bibler's nearly 1,700 acres of forests and grasslands in northwest Montana are a testament to sustainable multi-use management and community outreach. Carol’s father, Sam, started the Ranch in 1992 and Jim and Carol's stewardship began in 2001. A forester helped develop a plan for restoring stands of spruce, aspen and fir, and enrolled the property into the Tree Farm System. Jim and Carol are always mindful to create and maintain wildlife habitat in their management, and wildlife populations have increased, especially deer, elk and raptors. Wolves and grizzly bears pass through from time to time as well.  

They built a multi-use, all-season trail system on both properties used for hiking, horse riding and cross-country skiing. Numerous “first deer” have been taken on the Ranch as part of Jim’s mentoring youth in hunting and to properly caring for harvested meat. Their roles on numerous boards and committees reflect their commitment to broader environmental advocacy. Jim and Carol's legacy isn’t just about managing land; it's about inspiring others towards a future built on sustainable practices and stewardship.  

Jim Watson and Carol Bibler

Jim Watson and Carol Bibler

Harry and Karen Pelle for the Northcentral Region 

Tallow Creek Farm in Marion County, Kentucky embodies Harry and Karen Pelles’ enduring commitment to responsible land stewardship. From its roots as a weekend hunting retreat in 1982, this 1,793-acre expanse embodies the Pelles' enduring commitment to responsible land stewardship. Harry’s pursuit of knowledge around forest stewardship began with weekend retreats and grew as he attended seminars and field days, culminating in the formulation of Tallow Creek’s comprehensive forest management plan with a consulting forester.  

Beyond traditional timber management, the Pelles actively shape their oak-hickory forest across 1,000 acres. Harry's certification as a Kentucky Master Logger signifies his commitment to responsible, active forest management. Safeguarding water and improving wildlife habitat are regular tasks for the Pelles, and the rich biodiversity of their Tree Farm is carefully shaped by prescribed burns, various conservation efforts, and an overall nuanced understanding of the delicate ecological balance. As a platform for education and celebration, this farm is a testament to the Pelles’ belief that the outdoors is the ultimate setting for family and community and a legacy of hard work and staying true to the land that echoes through generations. 

Harry and Karen Pelle

Harry and Karen Pelle with family

Don and Linda Grove for the Northeast Region 

In 1968, Don and Linda Grove embarked on a journey to turn their 85-acre Maryland farm into a haven for sustainable forestry and wildlife conservation. What began as a venture into beef cattle farming transformed over the years into a testament to their unwavering commitment to natural resources conservation and adaptability. They transitioned to planting 25 acres of eastern white pine in 1980 to diversify their income sources, which substantially increased rabbit, pheasant, and deer populations, showcasing the symbiotic relationship between active forest management and improved wildlife habitat. 

 They've embraced various silvicultural practices, commercial thinning and reforestation efforts, marking their commitment to productive and sustainable timber and fuelwood harvests and water conservation. They placed a significant portion of their land into a permanent Forest Conservation Easement and implemented various water conservation practices to contribute to the health of the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed. Don and Linda's legacy is not just in the timber they harvest but in the thriving ecosystem they've cultivated. From wildlife management and habitat enhancement to educational outreach, their Tree Farm stands as a model for sustainable and holistic land stewardship. 


Don and Linda Grove with family

Don and Linda Grove with family

Heather Brassel for the Southern Region 

Nestled within the heart of Berrien County, Georgia, the Gaskins Estate has been in the Gaskins family for nearly two centuries. Heather Brasell’s journey into land stewardship began in 2009. With almost half the estate meticulously managed for timber production, Heather nurtures a diverse mix of longleaf, loblolly, and slash pines. The remaining area offers a sanctuary for various hardwood species. Her property nurtures a rich biodiversity, providing habitats for various wildlife species, including gopher tortoises, federally endangered indigo snakes and Bachman's sparrows.  

In 2009, Heather enrolled the property in the Tree Farm Program, underscoring her commitment to responsible forestry practices. In 2011, she inaugurated the Gaskins Forest Education Center for forest education outreach programs where she actively engages in promoting awareness and understanding of forest management practices by orchestrating various workshops, interactive sessions, field days, plant identification workshops and interagency field days. The Gaskins Forest Education Center serves as a haven for groups of all ages, welcoming students, landowners, and professionals to learn about conservation, forestry, and the importance of responsible land stewardship. 

Heather Brasell

Heather Brasell applying spray

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