Secretary Norton Highlights Private Conservation Day

Ffteen years ago Dr

From the May 2001 CEI UpDate


Fifteen years ago Dr. A. G. “Skeet” Burris, a Beaufort, South Carolina, orthodontist, bought an abandoned, cut-over, exhausted 100-acre farm in nearby Hampton County.  Now this land, once described as a “total disaster,” has expanded to a 1,000-acre tree farm with thriving plant and animal life. United States Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton honored Burris and his land on April 12th at the Center for Private Conservation’s annual “Private Conservation Day.”  Norton presented Burris with the 2001 Private Conservationist of the Year award.


Secretary Norton explained the need for a day to honor people like Burris: “Private conservationists don’t grab a lot of headlines and they don’t receive the praise and attention that they deserve, except for today.”


Indeed, the stories of small, hardworking conservationists should be told more frequently, most notably at this time of year. But rarely does Earth Day media coverage include praise for all the wonderful things landowners—many of them our neighbors—do to nurture and nourish us and Mother Earth.


As Fred Smith, CEI President and founder of the Center for Private Conservation, remarked at the event, “For too long, environmental policy has focused only on restrictions, regulations, and direct government ownership.  We’ve focused on what private people sometimes do wrong on our planet and not enough on how individuals and groups have done things right.”


Burris certainly did things right when he invested heart, soul, money, and labor into the dilapidated farm he named Cypress Bay Plantation.


Burris describes the land he bought with a laugh, “The whole place was a disaster, but we could afford it.”


The Burris family planned Cypress Bay’s transformation with a vision statement they tacked to their cabin wall.  They vowed to restore the land and buildings; conserve wildlife and trees; preserve native live oaks, wildflowers, and non-game animal species; perpetuate the forest for generations to come; and educate neighbors through the demonstration of excellent tree-farming practices.


They cut away the unhealthy trees, planted over 112,000 new trees of multiple varieties, constructed fifty acres of ponds, and created habitat for animals.  Paths, ponds, plantings, and cuts have irregular boundaries and broad curves, avoiding lines, rows, and large rectangular clear-cuts.


The Burris family invested a lot in Cypress Bay. Naturally, they expect to get something out of it.  They sell some trees for lumber. But they cut the trees to mimic natural cycles of removal and regeneration, creating a mosaic of age classes in the forest. They also bring in an income from hunting leases on the bountiful plantation, for which people pay a high premium.


Burris compromises neither the land’s beauty nor its health.  The need to turn a profit and the desire to keep the land productive and profitable for their children makes the Burrises excellent stewards of their land.


“We have to generate income from our tree farm to keep our property viable,” Burris said. As a member of the American Tree Farm System, he joins 66,000 small, private landowners who manage over 83 million acres of diverse, productive forests around the country.  A professional forester certifies these forests as Tree Farms when they are managed up to the highest silvicultural standards, with excellent soil, air, water, wildlife habitat, and aesthetics.


Other associations for private conservation include myriad land trusts, the Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, and a bounty of other nature groups, sportsmen’s societies, and garden clubs.


There is much we can learn from these landowners and associations, which have quietly been conserving some of our nation’s resources for hundreds of years.  Their intimate knowledge from working with their own land and their conservation stories could have been some of Earth Day’s best tales.


When asked why he got into tree farming, Skeet Burris shrugged as his face broke out into his trademark wide grin and he said, “I just loved trees.”


And we should love the work he and other private conservationists do to take care of them.


Allison Freeman ([email protected]), an environmental policy analyst at CEI, is a native of South Carolina.