Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Earl and Wanda Barrs Named 2009 National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year

The American Tree Farm System® (ATFS) has named Earl and Wanda Barrs as its 2009 National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year. The Barrs received the award during the 16th Annual National Tree Farmer Convention in Washington, D.C. on September 30. This annual award recognizes outstanding sustainable forest management on family owned woodlands. The Barrs own Gully Branch Tree Farm in Bleckley County, Georgia.

Every year, ATFS, a program of the American Forest Foundation, recognizes outstanding sustainable forest management for wood, water, wildlife, and recreation on privately owned woodlands across the country with national, regional, and state awards.

Earl and Wanda’s Gully Branch Tree Farm holds a unique spot in the history of the Barrs family. Earl’s family first settled the land in the late 1800s. His great grandparents share-cropped the land and raised their family there. Earl’s grandfather, James, was born on that farm. In the 1930s the land was up for sale for nine bales of cotton. Unfortunately, the family was unable to purchase it.

In the mid 1980s, Earl and Wanda were able to purchase 411 acres of the original farmland from a timber company that had purchased the farm in the 1950s. Now, expanded to 1,500 acres, the Tree Farm is a distinctive blend of heritage, venue for education, and personal experience for the Barrs’ role as private landowners.

Earl describes Gully Branch as a “work in progress,” and it is, just that. After acquiring the land from the timber company, the Barrs spent countless hours, endless energy, and ample resources to transform the industrially managed land into an esteemed, family-managed tree farm. Acres of topsoil piled high in windrows from the previous industrial owner was redistributed to yield more productive viewing and wildlife food plots, as well as acres of better quality soils.

Gully Branch is host to a variety of forest stands and soil types, elevations, vegetation, and wildlife. Loblolly pine plantations and natural loblolly and short leaf pine stands, as well as stands of upland and bottomland hardwoods are managed across the tree farm. Ponds are host to catfish, bream, largemouth bass, and grass carp. Above the waters and trees, red-headed woodpeckers, bluebirds, herons, kingfishers, and Canada geese take their respective “birds-eye” view of this well-managed forested land.

Earl and Wanda’s “work in progress” also includes influencing better management of woodlands by providing property tours, as well as political involvement, media relations, and taking on leadership assignments with natural resource groups.

If this is not enough, telling the story of Gully Branch should include counting visitors to the Tree Farm. Gully Branch as been used as one of the state’s premier outdoor classrooms since 1994. It began that year by hosting 100 seventh graders, and has grown annually to include some 700 to 900 students annually. Since 1994, more than 6,000 students have visited Gully Branch as part of forestry education field trips rooted in the American Forest Foundation’s Project Learning Tree® environmental education program.

As one third grade teacher said, after participating in an educational workshop and field trip to Gully Branch Tree Farm: “This was truly the best workshop I have ever attended” . . . what better way to learn than to ‘leave no child inside.’ Gully Branch Tree Farm was a joy to visit.”

As Wanda Barrs points out, “We believe leading follows learning. When we ensure learners of all ages are equipped with the facts, then the opportunity for effective leadership is greatly enhanced.”

Bob Simpson, AFF senior vice president of forestry, lauds Earl and Wanda. “Every year, we at the American Forest Foundation commit ourselves to the recognition of family forest owners like the Barrs. As winners of this year's National Outstanding Tree Farmer award, Earl's sustainable forestry practices and Wanda's gifts as an educator help ensure land like theirs will continue for the enjoyment for future generations."

The National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year awards are generously sponsored by Stihl, Inc. the world's leading chain saw manufacturer and a variety of handheld outdoor power equipment.

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