W.Va. man partakes in program to improve wildlife habitat

IRELAND, W.Va. (AP) — At age 79, John Cobb doesn’t have to spend six to eight hours a day working to improve wildlife habitat. He does, though, because he wants to.

Like an ever-growing number of West Virginians, Cobb participates in a program that reimburses private landowners for turning patches of dense forest into places more attractive to migratory birds and other wildlife species.

“It’s good for my mind, it’s good for my body,” said Cobb, a Maryland native who purchased 365 heavily forested acres of Mountain State countryside in 2006 and built a home there. “It allows me to be productive and to have a sense of purpose in my retirement.”

None of that was on Cobb’s mind when he bought the land. His most immediate priority was to chainsaw a path through the forest to gain access to his future home site. In fact, it didn’t occur to him to begin improving wildlife habitat until he had a random conversation with a worker at the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Weston.

“In 2009, I wanted to see if there were any aerial pictures of my property,” Cobb recalled. “At the USDA office, they had some great big ones.

“I got the pictures and, as I was leaving, the woman who was helping me said, ‘Do you know you can get money to improve your land?’ I said, ‘Really? What’s that about?’ ”

Cobb, who retired from marketing, discovered that the USDA, through the National Resources Conservation Service, has a program that reimburses landowners who improve wildlife habitat on their properties. The program meshed perfectly with Cobb’s goals for his property.

An avid hunter, Cobb wanted to maximize his land’s ability to grow deer, turkey, grouse and other wildlife species. He learned he could be reimbursed for the time he spent cutting grapevines, eliminating holly thickets, creating wildlife clearings and more.

The programs required him, with the help of agency foresters and biologists, to create work plans and to sign contracts agreeing to either do the work or have it done. After the work was completed, officials followed up to make sure the work had been done and to sign off on payment.

“Right now, I have 11 or 12 contracts working,” Cobb said. “They’re lined up through 2023, but I want to add another one. I want to plant (blight-resistant) American chestnuts and gobbler oak trees.”

American chestnuts were once the dominant tree species in the Eastern United States, until the chestnut blight of the early 1900s killed almost all of them. Cobb said geneticists have created a blight-resistant strain that shows great promise.

Cobb’s property has plenty of oak trees, but he wants to add to the mix some sawtooth oaks, popularly known as “gobbler oaks” for their ability to produce dense annual crops of small acorns.

Some of the contracts have paid quite well. For example, he received a check for $7,960 from the NRCS for having loggers perform an 11-acre clear-cut on a hillside downslope from his house.

“I also made about $38,000 for the sale of the timber, based on the standard 60/40 contract,” he said.

Two other contracts paid far less, but Cobb undertook them because he knew they would benefit the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird whose population has declined 70% in the past 40 years.

Ceruleans prefer to live in forest canopies riddled with small openings. By selectively cutting trees on two small tracts — one 6 acres and the other 4 acres — Cobb dramatically improved the cerulean habitat on his land. The contracts for the cuts paid $1,803 and $1,205, respectively, but Cobb said the larger reward came the year after the cuts were made.

“Before the cuts, biology students from (West Virginia University) found just one family of ceruleans on the property,” he said. “After the cuts, they found eight. That’s an amazing change for one year.”

Cobb’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2019, he was named West Virginia’s Tree Farmer of the Year.

“I didn’t even know there was such a designation,” he said. “I didn’t really need the recognition, but I realized that, if I got that status, I could use it to promote the program, and that’s what I’ve done with it.”

For four years now, Cobb has made an annual pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation.

“I’ve met with Sen. (Joe) Manchin, Sen. (Shelley Moore) Capito and Rep. (Alex) Mooney to help try and get more Interior Department funding for the Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture,” Cobb said.

“We got an increase of $1.5 million. Under the Joint Venture concept, there are corporate, educational and nongovernmental organizations that match each federal dollar with $31. Bottom line: That $1.5 million increase turned into $46.5 million of on-the-ground impact that will go to landowners who participate in the program.”

Scott Warner, who heads up the Wildlife Diversity section for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said the Joint Venture has allowed his agency to do work it otherwise wouldn’t have the funding to do.

“We’ve done 3,700 acres in the last 5 years, a lot of it on 10- to 15-acre woodlots,” he said. “It’s a win-win. Landowners can benefit from it financially and get technical assistance. A lot of landowners like to hunt, and the work they do carries benefits for all wildlife.”

Warner said landowners who want to know more about the program should contact their local DNR office. “We’ll put them in touch with our Partner Program biologists,” he added.

Matt Aberle, a Partner Program biologist who works out of the NRCS’s Summersville office, described how he handles landowners’ questions about the initiative.

“I ask them questions about their property, and what their goals are,” Aberle said. “I get them into the USDA system, walk the land with a forester, and get an idea of the work that needs to be done. I help them come up with their conservation plans, and then monitor progress on the work.”

Cobb often urges fellow landowners to do similar work on their properties.

“The majority of West Virginians that own property should be able to get into programs that help them improve their forests for wildlife,” he said. “Every one of those I can get to sign up makes me feel really good. I’m not in to make money. I do it from my heart.”