Taking the Long View: David & Tanya Tellman

Don’t say you haven’t been warned. When you visit Dave and Tanya Tellman, landowners in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, you will be meeting the sort of forest enthusiasts that will make you want to go out and buy a big chunk of land, whether or not you have the time, the energy, or the means. Their passion for forestry, for plants, for wildlife, for working in the woods, for tilling the soil and harvesting fruits and vegetables from their land is deeply inspiring. I’ve spent the weeks since visiting them this summer quietly scheming about how

I, too, might get a hold of a piece of land, start building trails, plant a giant garden, create some wildlife openings…Unfortunately, at the moment, I have trouble taking down the laundry when it rains, so large-scale landownership may not be an option for my family right now. But I’m warning you. You can’t help being inspired by the Tellmans.

Putting Down Roots

Dave and Tanya found their land on Thanksgiving Day in 1969, when they were visiting Dave’s brother and his wife in Jefferson. They could tell that their sister-in-law wanted them out of the house while she got dinner ready, so they drove around, looking at land for sale. They had been living in New York, during one of Dave’s tours of duty in the Army. They wanted to find a piece of land that would allow them to put down roots, a way to get out of the city, and a place to come home to from their far-flung Army tours in Germany and elsewhere overseas.

Both Dave and Tanya had been interested in the outdoors for years. Dave had always enjoyed working outside and getting “away” as he was growing up in the rural Midwest. His brother went to forestry school and worked in the forest products industry in Jefferson, NH. During college, Tanya was the only woman undergraduate studying in the Fish & Wildlife program at Michigan State, focusing on conservation education. While there, she met Dave. When they married, they embarked on a short stint with the US Army. “I thought we’d be there for two years, but I liked it, so we ended up staying for twenty-nine,” reports Dave, who retired as a colonel in 1989.

They found their land in Bethlehem on that first day, and made a small down payment after Thanksgiving dinner. They planned to camp there in summer with their boys, who could get rid of their energy by working at the neighboring dairy farm. There was a rustic camp on the edge of the property, and they could spend some time getting to know the land before deciding about the best way to manage it. “We decided early on that we wouldn’t work the woods until we could be present,” living there full time, says Dave. But they immediately started working on trails, cutting and maintaining them by hand, mostly following the stone walls that criss-cross the property.

Their land, dubbed Pine Knob Farm from a feature on the topographic map, has grown from several hundred acres to almost 800 contiguous acres in Bethlehem, with another 100+ acres in neighboring Whitefield. Their holdings grow large stretches of lowland spruce-fir forest, along with patches of mixed conifer and hardwood, and some portions of drier Northern hardwood forest. A 25-acre fen lies at the center of the land, sprouting scraggly black spruce and a great variety of interesting plant species. The Tellmans showed me dramatic ledges overlooking the White Mountains, and three old springs surrounded by cut stones which attract wildlife (and the Tellman’s dogs) and which reflect the historic use of this land by farmers going back into the 19th century.

A Dynamic Duo

Dave and Tanya have continued the farming tradition on their land, planting a garden and expanding the existing apple orchard on an impressive scale. “We’ve always had a big garden, no matter where we were,” says Tanya. I saw corn, raspberries, peas, asparagus, apples and just about anything else you can think of growing like crazy in the sunny field below their house. They make cider with their apples, and recently planted new trees to replace the old ones damaged by recent heavy snows. Where does all their produce go, I wondered? The Tellmans are not big people, but I suppose it takes a lot of food to keep their engines going for all the work they do on their land. They maintain all the trails on their property, cut and split the firewood, plow the access road, mow the fields, and still find time to release and to plant new fruiting trees and shrubs for wildlife throughout their property.

Somehow, their energy also gets extended far beyond their land holdings. Everyone who knows Dave and Tanya uses words like “energetic,” “involved,” and “incredible volunteers” to describe both of them. Grafton County Extension Forester Northam Parr, who has known the Tellmans since 1991, says of the them: “The Tellmans have incredible energy for volunteering. They are Forest Society volunteers, involved in town boards and the schools, on forestry boards and councils, doing youth education…and they still find time to welcomegroups and tours onto their property for dozens and dozens of workshops over the years.”

As Coverts Cooperators (Tanya went through the training in 1995 and Dave in 1996), the Tellmans bring their knowledge of land stewardship and wildlife to efforts such as the Project Learning Tree board (Tanya), the Current Use Board (Dave), and as Fish & Game Wonders of Wildlife Docents (both). “We’ve been doing the W.O.W. programs with the local schools for 15 years now, and it’s interesting to see how the kids’ interests have changed over the years,” says Tanya. “These days, even though they live in northern New Hampshire, I’ve been surprised how unconnected they seem to be to the outdoors.” Dave continues, “We think it’s important to talk about the environment in the schools. We can reach all types of kids, not just the ones whose parents think to bring them to an outdoors program. Of course we like doing family programs, too—as docents at the Rocks Estate—but sometimes you feel like you are preaching to the choir.”


Long Term Stewardship

The Tellmans know their property intimately, according to County Forester Nory Parr. While they are knowledgeable and do a lot of their management work themselves, they also know when to seek advice and assistance. Says Parr, “They use forestry professionals, and they are very committed to long term management…that’s an easy thing to say, but the Tellmans are actually doing it.” After they built a house and moved to Bethlehem in 1990, Dave and Tanya had a management plan prepared for their 580 acres (which has been added to over the years as they acquired additional parcels). Their objectives include periodic timber harvests to improve the quality of the forest and the standing trees. Improving wildlife and plant habitats and protecting special places such as the ledges, the fen, and other unique features are also important objectives. Their first timber harvest in the early 1990’s was a harvest of over-mature aspen and alder that has since re-grown and now provides ideal habitat for “a ton of ruffed grouse,” observes Dave. The Tellmans want people who visit their land to recognize that forestry is compatible with wildlife and plants. Says Tanya, “Our foresters used to look at me strangely when I asked them to avoid areas with special wildflowers or interesting plants, but these days, they don’t seem to think it’s all that odd, so I guess things have changed a bit.” Either the times have changed, or the foresters have grown to appreciate Tanya’s love of wildflowers. “My mother named every wildflower she ever passed,” says Tanya. As Plant Conservation Volunteers for the New England Wildflower Society, Tanya and Dave search out populations of rare plants, confirming historical records or looking for new sites.

Over the last 20 years, the Tellman’s property has been hit by three large windstorms, but they have taken these circumstances in stride, and used the unexpected blow-downs to improve habitat and restock their woodpiles. They focus their positive outlook on the larger landscape as well. “There has been some heavy cutting in the area around their land, but the Tellmans take the long view, something than can be hard to do for some. They recognize that the forest will grow back - that over the long term, it will recover,” says Nory Parr. In fact, the Tellmans have adapted the management on their land to take into account the heavier cutting next door. On the eastern reaches of their land, below the rock ledges, they’ve decided not to harvest a large area of spruce-fir, opting instead to leave it as wildlife habitat.

When I asked the Tellmans what they hoped to show visitors at the upcoming Tree Farm Field Day, Dave said in his characteristically succinct manner: “Good weather.” With a quick smile, he continued. “We’d like to show people that managing for spruce-fir forests in northern New Hampshire is a lot more challenging that doing forestry in southern New Hampshire.” With the help of several consulting foresters, the Tellmans have experimented with different silvicultural techniques for managing spruce-fir on wet, poor soils. They’ve done strip cuts, selective harvests and patch cuts. While they have experienced some problems with blow downs, there is evidence of a lot of good regeneration on much of their property. I was struck by the incredible number of standing dead snags and downed woody debris (“a good by-product of all of those windstorms,” says Dave), which make great habitat for black-backed woodpeckers and other species that rely on spruce-fir habitat. Dave and Tanya regularly see moose, bear, porcupine, beaver, and a variety of songbirds. On the morning of my visit, Dave had spotted a whole family of piliated woodpeckers while he split wood near the house – mother, father and three babies. If that kind of sighting was typical of a morning’s work, I wondered whether they had ever done any monitoring of wildlife on their land. “No, not really,” said Tanya, in her self-effacing way. There was a pause.

Once again, I was to be inspired by the Tellman’s enthusiasm and long-standing commitment to their land: “…But we’ve been keeping a journal of our activities over the last thirty years…it includes gardening, forestry, and wildlife observations…and we have a route that we do every year for the Christmas bird count and the Backyard Bird Survey for NH Audubon.”

Come. Be inspired.

By Malin Clyde, UNH Cooperative Extension