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Kountz tree farm's diversity is a winner

A summer walk through Bryant Kountz’s tree farm in the community of Reeves near Kinder offers some unexpected delights. Sure, you’ll see healthy stands of mature pines, with hardwoods growing in shady bottomlands, well-maintained roads and water features. But you’ll also see tracts of young longleaf pines standing like stiff sentinels, their green-needled pompom heads waving in the breeze. Close by, colorful wildflowers are attended by butterflies and other insects. Though you probably won’t spy them, deer may be silently eyeing you from the shadows of nearby trees. If you’re exceptionally lucky, you might unknowingly walk up on a mother turkey warming a late-season clutch of eggs, as property manager Patrick Deshotels and I did on a July tour. It’s a biodiverse universe on this 2,043-acre timber property in southwest Louisiana, where the views hearken back to a time when this region was a mosaic of longleaf pine savannas and native prairies. That look is very much intentional, says the farm’s owner. “I love longleaf — the way it looks and its characteristics. From the beginning, I wanted to restore the longleaf pine stands that were native to Louisiana,” explained Kountz, a Lafayette businessman who bought the acreage about 14 years ago. “I’m a preservationist and conservationist at heart.” His focus on stewardship of the overall forest ecosystem here has earned his selection as this year’s Louisiana Outstanding Tree Farmer, the LFA award that recognizes excellence in forest management. He credits his manager Deshotels and consulting forester Steve Templin as key to the success of this restoration endeavor. Deshotels is also a wildlife biologist with 10 years previous experience with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Templin, who has worked with Kountz since the property’s purchase, nominated him for the LFA tree farmer award. Kountz also acknowledges the “big influence” of the nonprofit Nature Conservancy organization and his friend and neighboring landowner David Daigle. “I really enjoy the process of improving the timber stands through sustainable farming and proven management programs,” said Kountz. “It is very rewarding to get to work with professionals in the industry.” “Bryant takes a keen interest in what’s going on here, and is out on the property almost every week,” said Templin. “He wants to restore as much longleaf pine as possible and is very active in coordinating things. He’s a lot of fun to work with.” Deshotels explained that his background in wildlife habitat enhancement has helped him implement Kountz’s goals for timberland biodiversity. “We are focusing on those things that create value in the land as a whole,” said Deshotels. “Increased diversity usually increases the value of the land. We are making a concerted effort to put longleaf pine back on this landscape as it was for thousands of years prior to 100 years ago.” The idea is to turn back the clock somewhat to a time before longleaf pine was removed in this region, to be replaced by pine plantations, farms and development. The Kountz property includes both natural (36 percent) and planted (58 percent) stands of varying ages and species, including loblolly, longleaf and slash pine, as well as hardwood trees. As existing loblolly tracts mature, they are being harvested and replanted with longleaf, and thinning cuts are conducted as needed. An aggressive program of controlled burns promotes growth of the longleaf trees and sustains wildlife by reducing “mid-story” plant growth and increasing grassy understory. The use of containerized seedlings and chemical site preparation have also helped the longleaf pines’ survival rate, said Deshotels. Growing the longleaf pine is not a route to quick profits. It has about a 30 percent slower growth rate than loblolly, but its merits include straight trunks, a higher wood density and great benefits for wildlife habitat, noted Templin. Deer, turkey, quail, the red cockaded woodpecker, pine snake, even migrating birds and some threatened plant species all tend to do well within the longleaf pine ecosystem that historically dominated this area, added Deshotels. “Mr. Bryant took a leap of faith by hiring a land manager,” he continued. “He’s given me the liberty to try different things here.” Templin pointed to last year’s planting of about 30 acres of a cold-tolerant variety of eucalyptus as an example of Kountz’s interest in experimenting with new ideas. Deshotels works with a host of state and federal agencies, as well as nonprofit associations, to learn and implement practices to improve the Kountz tree farm. Partnering with neighboring landowners with similar management goals also has been beneficial. “When you’re doing something good, it’s attractive to others,” said Deshotels. “By putting our focus and attention on biodiversity, it increases the value of the land. We are trying to focus on those things that create value in land, including the timber.” “If we don’t do it now, in 50 years this ecosystem will be missing from the landscape altogether,” he declared. How Kountz was drawn into ownership of a tree farm in Allen Parish has its roots many years ago, he said. “I grew up on a farm in Kinder. My father was friends with Bill Jackson and Billy Blake, one of the owners of the J.A. Bel Estate,” Kountz said. “As a boy, they would take me with them to look at timber, and we spent a lot of time at their office in Kinder. I was always fascinated with their operation.” The Bel Estate was sold in the 1990s, said Kountz, and he purchased much of its timberland about 14 years ago from subsequent owner Molpus Woodlands Group. While Kountz’s tree farm is a study in diversity, so have been his business interests. With a degree in agribusiness from McNeese State University in 1971, Kountz has owned timberland for 47 years, starting with a 40-acre stand. His career has included business management, real estate development and tire and automotive businesses in five states; among these are multiple locations of Allied Discount Tire stores in Louisiana. Allied Development is the company that holds his timberland, along with a sister entity, the nonprofit Pacific Land and Water Conservancy. Kountz also has ownership interests in other timberland in Louisiana and elsewhere, including tracts of old growth redwood and Douglas fir in northern California. His forested properties in southwest Louisiana total about 4,100 acres. “Receiving the LFA Tree Farmer award is a humbling experience. With so many dedicated and committed tree farmers in the state, it was an unexpected honor,” said Kountz. With his wife, Diane — who also grew up in Allen Parish — they have four children and 14 grandchildren who enjoy the opportunity for recreation at the tree farm. Deer stands dot the property, signaling its use by hunters through a lease with an adjacent landowner. The Kountzes also have made their land available for occasional educational visits by local school and church groups. In addition, one large section of the property was transformed several years ago into the Crader Lake Wellness Center, with the goal of promoting healthy eating and lifestyles. An organic garden, fruit orchard, kitchen, cabins and a 15-acre lake are arrayed on the serene site. Kountz explained that his own experience with heart problems several years ago prompted him to change his diet and then create a place where others could learn about the merits of whole, organic foods as natural medicines and for disease prevention. Looking toward the future of his unique tree farm, Kountz said he wants to “continue to expand the longleaf pine stands and to make sure the farm remains under strong stewardship for generations to come.” “I have been very blessed to be a steward over these properties and owe it all to my heavenly Father and the many employees, consultants, customers and vendors that He has put in my life. “ With his affinity and affection for the role longleaf pine played in this region of Louisiana, Bryant Kountz hopes he is growing a lasting legacy. P (Melanie Torbett is a writer, forest landowner and contributor to Forests & People magazine.)

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