A forest landowner’s journey through the trees.
Just north of the Catskills, in a picturesque slice of heaven, lives a retired New York City sanitation worker. Several years ago, he made the life-changing move from city dweller to rural citizen, and, along the way, he incorporated environmental ethics into his way of life. Today, he’s known as a model forest landowner and conservationist. This is a story of his transition from managing waste to managing for sustainability.
Today, 58-year-old Anthony Scarfuto lives with his wife, Lynn, on a sprawling, partially wooded, 165-acre property that overlooks the rolling hillsides of Springfield in Otsego County, New York. By all measures, their lifestyle would be a dream come true for many people. They have privacy and are surrounded by scenic beauty and wildlife. They have abundant natural resources. A spring out back provides an endless stream of fresh water. Plenty of land is available for farming if desired. Trees provide a sustainable wood supply, as well as a habitat for local flora and fauna. They own a comfortable estate, feel close to nature and have achieved an enviable work/life balance.
Dream come true
Anthony first conceived of buying acreage in the country as a home and a means to make money. "I wanted a future investment," he says. "If I had to sell off a piece, I could do it and still live comfortably. It was a worthwhile investment. I bought five lots total over the years, one lot at a time."
The Scarfutos built their home seven years ago on a hillside featuring majestic views of the surrounding countryside. The dwelling has extra thick insulation to keep heating costs down. "We use a geothermal heat pump. We heat the house for about 50-75 cents a day." They supplement that heat source sustainably with firewood that Anthony harvests from their land.
Anthony loves the outdoors and managing his own natural habitat. "We have deer, woodchucks, porcupines, skunks, rabbits and the occasional black bear. They like the berries. We have a wide variety of birds here. We see everything from bald eagles to hummingbirds. My neighbor, a bird expert, said that’s a sign of a healthy area."
Tools and toys of the trade
Though their dwelling is scenic, comfortable and practical, their over-sized tool shed stands out. It provides shelter for the heavy-duty equipment needed to maintain the sprawling estate. Both shed construction and equipment acquisition took time.
"When I first came up here all I had was a 3.5-horsepower push lawnmower and a shovel. I was slightly unprepared for living in the rural countryside," he says.
The first winter seven years ago, Anthony used a snow shovel to clear a path through the snow on the driveway. After his first few backbreaking yards along the nearly quarter-mile-long stretch, he quickly grew to appreciate the value of hydraulic equipment and automation. "My driveway’s 1,200 feet long, so a shovel’s no good. I have a John Deere tractor and a Bobcat Toolcat 5600. Any attachment that goes on the Bobcat would also fit most skid steer loaders. There are about 25 different attachments you can put on it."
Anthony uses a tractor-mounted rotary cutter to keep the heavy brush in check, a mid-mounted finish mower for cutting around the house, and a snow blower that fits on the Toolcat to keep the driveway clear in winter. All told, with attachments, the equipment cost the Scarfutos about $80,000 – an investment they say was well worth making.
The ‘Have-More’ Plan
A publication written 65 years ago, The "Have-More" Plan, helped Anthony gradually adjust to the new lifestyle and gave him helpful tips on managing resources in a rural setting. The 72-page booklet was originally published in 1943, and republished by Storey Publishing in 1973. It’s available through Storey (www.Storey.com).
"It gave me a better perspective," he says. "The mistake I made was I did too much too fast." His advice to other rural landowners: Don’t try to take on too much all at once.
"This book would walk you through that transition a step at a time. Try to have a plan and an alternate plan. Take it a step at a time and try to make gradual progress. The book covered topics like how to build a pig pen or a chicken coop. It’s a reprint of a book that was first published in the Depression. I think it’s a fantastic book."
Anthony’s current way of life little resembles the crowded, busy environment of his youth. As a child, he longed to get out of the urban landscape and into a place less traveled.
Anthony’s childhood in the urbanized Flatbush section of Brooklyn left him ill prepared to manage the complexities of a large country property. However, it did give him the ideological seeds of conservation, at least in principle.
"I never went to any nature camps," he says. "We had relatives in a rural, coal mining section of Pennsylvania." Other than the occasional family trip there, the closest he came to visiting natural surroundings as a child was going to Prospect Park or Central Park in Manhattan and seeing glimpses of Jamaica Bay.
"My neighbor, Frank Sellitto, worked for the city parks department. He used to cut hair at night, and he worked for the park service during the day." It was Sellitto and Anthony’s own experience as a garbage truck worker that got him interested in conservation.
Anthony’s position as a sanitation worker had its perks, including a variety of surprises discovered each day along his collection route. "Every pail was a new adventure. Everything you found had a story behind it. Sustainability always came to mind. There’s too much natural resource waste in the United States. If we could recycle more, the world would be a better place."
As much as anything else, Anthony believes his aching feet helped spur him to make a transition in his life. "I did 26 years with the sanitation department, but all the walking took its toll. Otherwise I’d still be with them."
Embracing the change
Anthony loves being a rural forest landowner today, but he acknowledges a few drawbacks. "There are certain things I miss: our families for one, Broadway shows for another." He adds he occasionally misses the diversity and cultural attractions of the big city.
"There’s a diversity of food there, more museums and more of a cross-section of people. Here, there’s more travel involved to get things. If someone gets sick the response time is longer. You have to fend for yourself. My yard projects especially are much bigger now."
A few years ago, Anthony decided to not only maintain his lands, but to actively manage and improve them. He said working with the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) made a big difference in getting started.
"We read about forest stewardship somewhere and went down to the local town hall. They got us in touch with Paul Trotta with the DEC. It all started with Paul and then Dan Gaidasz," he says. "You could call them on the phone, and they would send a representative out to your property and help you make a management plan. They were excellent. They went over the whole property. They gave us ideas about putting ponds in, putting trees in, all kinds of things. It was an incentive to improve the land and leave it better than you found it. We decided to reforest. Most of the property was open field. We had 25 acres of standing timber, and we had some tree rows."
Anthony’s first big planting consisted of about 6,000 trees on about 15 acres. They planted rows of blue spruce, red spruce and white pine, as well as maple, cherry and oak trees. He is using the pine trees as a wind block. They also planted hardwood trees for shade and aesthetics behind the house.
Forests are good for us
Anthony now has a tremendous appreciation for forests. "Trees are a renewable resource. They put oxygen in the air and take out CO2. Trees prevent erosion. They help with biodiversity, increase energy independence and improve water quality. On our back property, all our wells are supplied from the same underground spring."
The U.S. Forest Service routinely works with state agencies that provide technical assistance to private forest landowners to enhance stewardship and conservation. Last summer, several representatives of the Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service paid Anthony a visit. They came for a tour of his property, to note his forest management progress and to praise him for his hard work as a conservationist. Anthony shared his plans to further improve his lands.
When it comes to trees, Anthony says the best advice he could give other landowners is to contact the experts. "I’d tell them to get in touch with their state environmental agency and possibly connect with a forestry consultant."
When it comes to land in general, Anthony believes that giving it back better than when you first arrive is the right thing to do, and there’s no doubt that the couple’s 165-acre retreat will stand for generations as a prime example.
Glenn Rosenholm is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, based in the Durham, New Hampshire, office.
To contact your state’s environmental agency, check phone listings under Government. For instance, the Kansas listing is under Health & Environment Department, while New York’s is under Department of Environmental Conservation. Or contact your county extension office.
Other resources include:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460
The EPA has a page listing all state environmental agencies:
U.S. Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20250-0003
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