Cornish’s O’Neill honored for stewardship of forest that she opens to townspeople
|Published: 10-23-2023 2:25 PM
CORNISH — In managing her 475-acre wooded property in Cornish, Colleen O’Neill chooses to think in tree time — which is long and slow.
Decisions made today at Langwood Tree Farm, such as where to harvest timber, are for the benefit of arboreal life decades in the future.
But that doesn’t prevent the 64-year-old O’Neill from considering life in her woods in real time. O’Neill leaves old ski poles, to be used as makeshift walking sticks, for anyone who might want to wander the snaking network of free public trails she’s plotted out with her forester for hiking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
Visitors are asked to sign a guest book at the foot of the trails. Inside her home, O’Neill keeps five of books already filled with names.
This spring, O’Neill was awarded the New Hampshire’s Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year by the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.
But a decade ago, “I had no idea what it even meant ‘to be a tree farmer,’ ” O’Neill said on a clear day earlier this fall, as she drove her four-wheeler up the trails, checking on parts of the property.
When her husband, the writer J.D. Salinger, died in 2010, O’Neill was left with the land they had managed together. She took it upon herself to get educated.
“I love to learn from people that are really smart and in the industry,” O’Neill said. “I just listen and absorb and ask questions. I’m a good copycat.”
Any woodland managed to produce forest products is considered a tree farm. Sustainable tree farmers, like O’Neill, adopt management practices that also enhance wildlife habitat, water quality and recreation.
O’Neill directs foresters to girdle selected trees, a practice that cuts rings around trees to kill them without felling them. Standing dead trees can be good habitat for birds and insects. Of the trees that are harvested, some she leaves behind to decompose and enrich the soil.
There are more than 1,500 tree farms in the state, most of which are privately owned, according to the New Hampshire Tree Farm Program. Put together, the farms make up 500,000 acres of forest land.
But it’s not all ax-swinging. On a walk through her woods, O’Neill laid a toy tyrannosaurus rex along the trail, adding it to a legion of other stuffed animals in the forest, most of which she placed herself.
She abstains from leaving toys on the logging road, where things are more “serious,” she said.
People hear about the trails through “word of mouth,” O’Neill said. “Everyone’s been very respectful.”
Visitors leave their own touch on the woods, too.
“I vibe with that,” she said upon noticing a new bee figurine strung up in one of her trees.
O’Neill moved to Cornish in the 1980s. Even in a small, rural town, Salinger was frequently hounded by unwelcome fans, many who came from afar. Strangers sometimes walked up the couple’s winding driveway to the house, trying to get a glimpse of the famously reclusive writer.
So in those days, maintaining a public element to the property wasn’t a priority, O’Neill said. But since Salinger’s death, she’s made a point of encouraging open use of the trails and offering up the property in other ways, too.
In the fall, she welcomed the North East Border Collie Association to the front fields of Langwood for sheepdog trials. This week, at the urging of Jeremy Turner, her forester, O’Neill had a pair of draft horses demonstrate a centuries-old method of timber pulling for curious onlookers.
“Sharing is a big part of Colleen’s messaging, all the time,” said Turner, a managing forester at New London-based Meadowsend Consulting.
Salinger wasn’t as involved with the forester when he was alive and took a backseat in the management of the couple’s woodland. But O’Neill knew Langwood would eventually be in her name, she said.
“I wanted to jump in,” she said.
When Salinger died, she started taking classes through New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, touring other tree farms and spending more time in her woods with Turner.
“I’m a landowner, but I wanted to educate myself so that I could talk to people who work in forestry and speak that language,” she said. “I wanted to ask the right questions.”
Just months after Salinger’s death, O’Neill oversaw the laying of a half-mile logging road. In 2012, she and Turner executed a 50-acre harvest to “take out junky trees to open canopy space,” she said.
The logging harvested mature trees, opening up canopy space to give younger, smaller trees a chance.
“Those acorns underneath, once the sun hit them, they just started growing,” she said.
O’Neill now sits on the board of the state’s Timberland Owners Association and is a member of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
“She stepped in and rolled up her sleeves, went all in,” Turner said. “Fast forward, she’s one of the more learned, capable and involved landowners that I work with.”
The land at Langwood is enrolled in the state’s current use program, which gives tax breaks to landowners who manage their property for timber.
O’Neill doesn’t harvest much timber for income, she said. Her interests lie more with wildlife habitat and “just taking care of the trees.” She learned to leave windows of open meadow for wildflowers, woodcocks and kestrels.
Thinking of her property at a macro-level, O’Neill’s long-term plan is to place the land in a conservation easement, which will protect it from development. There are quite a few easements in Cornish already, “so we almost have a corridor of protected, open land,” she said. “One of my goals is to join that corridor.”
Growing up in Maryland, O’Neill didn’t spend much time around agriculture.
“I wish we could learn about these things school,” she said, about her later-in-life education in forest management. In the spring she volunteered at a forestry career fair for high school students.
Her role at Langwood, O’Neill said, is to leave the land better than she found it. “And to always keep learning.”
Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3242.