Kentucky’s top forest steward for 2015 has planted nearly 100,000 trees

Herbert Davis Sr stood next to a soft maple tree he cut down to make way for a higher-value oak tree to grow.
Herbert Davis Sr stood next to a soft maple tree he cut down to make way for a higher-value oak tree to grow.

Driving along a narrow country road, Herbert C. Davis points out a hillside where someone had cut every marketable tree larger than a few inches in diameter.

It’s not how Davis would have done it.

Davis, 81, of Casey County, was named the Outstanding Forest Steward of the Year for 2015 by the Kentucky Division of Forestry, and is being considered for an award by the American Tree Farm System.

The reason is his work over more than 40 years to improve the quality of timber and wildlife habitat on his land in Casey and Taylor counties.

Davis estimates he has planted 95,000 trees, including several types of oak, ash, black walnut, white pine and even a stand of bald cypress on some wet bottom land near the Green River, mowing and pruning over several years to help the trees get established.

He has done timber-improvement work on more than 700 acres, removing vines and low-value trees to free up space, sunlight and water for more valuable species. He also sowed native grasses, or grasses and wildflowers, on more than 130 acres, which reduces erosion and helps water quality.

“You feel kind of humbled by looking at it,” Davis said of his years of work.

Amy Carmicle-Rabich, who nominated Davis for the stewardship award, said Davis’ interest and hands-on involvement in properly managing his land sets him apart.

“He wants it done right,” said Carmicle-Rabich, a state forester.

Davis said he knew nothing about timber improvement when he started, and would not have been able to accomplish what he has without technical and financial help from state and federal forestry and conservation programs.

After more than 40 years, he still seeks advice from foresters on improvement projects.

1975when Herbert Davis began his forestry pursuits

“You never get too old to learn,” said Davis, a soft-spoken, self-effacing man whose friends call him Hub.

Forestry officials would like to see more woodland owners like Davis.

Forests cover nearly half the state, and most of that land is privately owned, said Billy Thomas, an extension forester with the University of Kentucky.

But because of lack of proper management and other factors, the state’s forest resources are estimated to be worth only 25 percent of what they could be, he explained. “There’s a real potential” for improvement, Thomas said.

Thomas visited Davis’ land in December as part of the process of choosing the American Tree Farm System’s top tree farmer in Kentucky for 2015.

Davis is a finalist along with Larry and Richard Workman of Lawrence County, Thomas said. The award will be announced in April.

Davis grew up the youngest of eight children on a farm in the Casey County community of Rheber. One of his sisters died of diphtheria at a young age.

He hitchhiked to college in Campbellsville before selling enough tobacco to buy a 1941 Chevrolet for $400.

He joked that the car was good for courting his future wife, Lou Wanda. The two, who married in 1954, have three daughters, a son, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Davis finished a degree in agriculture at Western Kentucky University in 1955, then spent two years in the Army before coming home and taking a teaching job in Russell County.

He retired in 1985 after serving as a teacher and principal. His wife spent her career as a teacher in Casey County.

Davis got involved in timber-stand improvement in 1975 after buying a 302-acre farm in Taylor County.

The work requires years of patience, but there is a payoff.

“As time went on, I’d see the growth in the good trees,” Davis said.

Nature does wonderful things.

Herbert C. Davis

In 1994 and 1995, Davis sold enough timber off the Taylor County farm to pay for the land four times over, he said.

“Sometimes you get lucky,” he said.

Davis used the money to buy other farms. He now owns nearly 1,000 acres, with about 750 acres in woods.

And with proper management, there is as much timber on the Taylor County farm as there was 20 years ago, Davis said.

“Nature does wonderful things,” he said.

Davis said he has used best-management practices for logging, and has made his woodlands available for forestry field trips.

“He’s a great ambassador for forestry and for agriculture,” Thomas said.

Davis has raised cattle and crops as well, including wheat and soybeans, but converted about 300 acres of cropland or pasture to trees or grassland.

Davis said if he’d farmed the land, he would have needed to buy equipment and hire help. It made more sense at that point in his life to plant trees and grass, he said.

The changes improved wildlife habitat and help keep agricultural chemicals from getting into the Green River.

“That’s a benefit for people not only now but in the future,” Davis said.

These days, Davis said his woodlands are in “pretty good shape, thank goodness,” but he’s not done with efforts to improve his timber.

Driving around the edge of the woods on one of his farms, he mentioned projects he has in mind and pointed out some smaller trees.

“They’ll be ready for the next generation,” he said. “I really like the young stand coming on.”