Tracy Moskovitz and Bambi Jones have made the 1,000-plus-acre Hidden Valley Nature Center into a nonprofit educational and recreational destination. Photo by Joe Rankin.
Tracy Moskovitz and Bambi Jones just can’t seem to stop buying land.
It started innocently enough in 1978, “when Bambi went down to the Post Office and talked to the clerk and she came back with a farm to buy,” as Moskovitz tells it.
The farm was supposed to be 60 acres, but turned out to be 100. There were more purchases after that, 40 acres here, 60 there, all contiguous to the first. Their biggest single acquisition was 600 acres. Their total now stands at about 2,000. Most of it is forestland, straddling the Jefferson-Whitefield town line in the mid-coast area of Maine, only a few miles from the sea.
The couple joke that they don’t have kids so they don’t have to pile up college savings, and they’ve got to spend their money on something, so why not land?
They still operate an organic farm on part of property in Whitefield. But about six years ago, at the urging of Gary Hayward, a friend and neighbor, they spun off half of their acreage into the non-profit Hidden Valley Nature Center, which offers recreational trails, woodland educational programs, and gives visitors the opportunity to see sustainable forestry in action. Hayward became Hidden Valley Nature Center’s first director. One of his first steps was to erect and donate a yurt, today the Center’s most popular overnight facility.
Once something of a hidden gem, Hidden Valley is becoming better known and today draws thousands of visitors a year. In 2014, Moskovitz and Jones won the Maine Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year and the Northeast Regional Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year awards. They were also named Maine’s Best Remote Winter Retreat by Downeast Magazine.
Hidden Valley is a big chunk of woodland, mostly white pine and oak – white and red. There are rocky ridges, a kettle bog with pitcher plants, beaver ponds, and Little Dyer Pond.
“Almost all of this 1,000 acres has been continuously logged. There are no stone walls and cellar holes. It’s never been farmed,” said Moskovitz. “We’ve found old logging camps with potbellied stoves and bed frames, piles of sawdust, and the occasional old horseshoe.”
Some of the land was logged not long before the couple bought it, with some parcels cut harder than others. “It’s all fairly young stands, and as a result our practices are almost all geared toward timber stand improvement,” said Moskovitz.
Harvesting takes place on a single 15- to 20-acre parcel each year. The work is generally done using a bulldozer to pull trees to the trails, where they’re loaded onto a log trailer that’s pulled by a big farm tractor. Moskovitz and Jones are intensely interested in “mid-size” harvesting equipment, and even made a trip to Sweden to see equipment in action.
“This is typical of what we do,” said Moskovitz, pointing off into the woods as we walked along the Big Rock Loop Trail through a stand of pine and oak. In 2007, a thinning operation on the 15 acres around us generated some 30 cords of firewood, another 30 cords of pulpwood, and 4,200 board feet of lumber. And the woods road is now a trail used by skiers, hikers, dog walkers, and runners.
Hidden Valley’s mission is three-pronged: outdoor recreation, education, and sustainable forestry. “Recreation was the driving force at the beginning,” said Moskovitz, though sustainable forestry was a close second, since the couple had always worked in their woods. (Jones is a devoted pine pruner; she’s pruned an estimated 15,000 white pines – 500 or so a year.)
Education followed naturally. Their first grant, applied for in cooperation with the Chewonki Foundation, was to buy snowshoes for kids to use on trips into the woods. In 2014, a large barn was erected to help host educational offerings.
Other structures have also been added, but if there’s one thing stitching the three prongs of Hidden Valley’s mission together, it’s the trails. They are sited not just to efficiently pull out wood, but for how they can be integrated into the trail system post-harvest. “When we move into the next 15-acre area, we move into there thinking where the trails are going to go. We’re going to use them once or twice for forestry and they’re going to be used hundreds of times for everything else. We’re constantly mindful of ‘this would be a neat place to go’ and then take the road that way,” Moskovitz said.
Most people come to take a walk or ski in the woods. While they’re there they learn about forest management being done – that the thinning produces healthier trees, that the brush piles left behind benefit wildlife. “Not everyone wants us to do as much cutting as we do, but they all have an appreciation for it anyway,” said Jones.
Today, Hidden Valley is an organization with a $100,000 budget (the money comes from memberships, donations, grants, and wood sales). It has nearly 500 members and sees some 7,000 visitors a year (everyone is welcome, donations appreciated), most of them in the winter when 20 miles of groomed (but not tracked) ski trails beckon. It offers some 40 workshops on about 20 subjects, from timber framing to pruning, white pine ecology to chainsaw safety, improving wildlife habitat to building water crossings. For three years now it has offered one-day Women and their Woods workshops for female forest landowners. There’s a kid’s cross-country ski clinic, an annual Live Edge Music, and full moon hikes.
For the future, expanding the educational offerings and events is a priority, particularly involving more school groups, said current executive director Andy McEvoy. He started as a Hidden Valley volunteer helping with logging two years ago because, “I was interested in the woods and in the mid-size logging machinery and in multiple-use forestry.”
McEvoy is the only paid employee, and he does it all: from logging in winter to fundraising, public relations, trail work, hut maintenance, membership mailings, grant writing, developing new programs, coordinating volunteers. “One of the best things we’re doing at Hidden Valley is giving equal weight to different forestland values, such as non-motorized recreation, improving and growing timber, protecting and enhancing certain types of wildlife habitat and providing public access to the community. We give them all great attention and balance them,” he said.
Hidden Valley’s appeal, McEvoy believes, comes from a combination of its size (at 1,000 acres it takes a while to explore) and its commonplace composition. “There’s nothing really sexy or glamorous about this property,” he said. “It has some nice features, but they’re not big mountains or huge timber or old growth or rare plants. They’re funky wetlands and granite ridges and beaver bogs. It’s something that people can relate to when we’re talking about forestry.”
Consulting forester Barrie Brusila of Mid-Maine Forestry has worked with Moskovitz and Jones for eight years and recently completed melding all the various forest management plans into one plan.
The interesting thing, she said, is that Moskovitz and Jones are bucking a trend toward subdivision by reassembling properties “into a coherent whole” with the vision of keeping it undeveloped. From a forester’s point of view that’s an increasingly rare thing. “The opportunity for really long-term management in the midcoast area is rather uncommon, and a great thing to have in this part of the state,” she said.
Perhaps what most excites Jones, Moskovitz, and McEvoy is that they may have found a way to expand and replicate the model they have created. “We recently joined a discussion with a group of four surrounding conservation organizations and are exploring the possibility of merging,” said Moskovitz. “If successful, the result will be a much larger land trust with a broader mission that includes Hidden Valley Nature Center’s successful model of land stewardship, community outreach, sustainable forestry, education, and recreation.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature, and sustainability from his home in central Maine.