A fortuitous combination of family inspiration, education and hands-on dedication has led to George Giltner’s selection this year as the Louisiana Forestry Association’s Tree Farmer of the Year.
“I was actually born into tree farming,” said Giltner, a retired petrochemical chemist whose family, past and present, has for decades nurtured 420 acres of forestland south of DeRidder in Beauregard and Vernon parishes. “I cannot express enough gratitude and appreciation for the family work that was done to develop our tree farm.”
The Giltners’ successful foray into forestry began when George’s father, Paul, started buying land and planting timber in southwest Louisiana in the late 1940s, after the great Louisiana timber harvests had denuded much of the old-growth forests. He was an industrial electrician in Lake Charles, where he and his wife raised George and his sister Bobbie.
“When Dad began planting trees, people thought he was crazy,” remembered Giltner. “This place was a prairie then,” a landscape more suited to cattle and sheep grazing. “Tree plantings in barren locations were always a priority.”
“His first 80-acre plot was hand-planted by him and his cousins,” said Giltner. “However, the tract was destroyed by fire during a time of free-range sheep and cattle grazing culture.”
Undeterred, the elder Giltner placed anti-fire signs on his property, offered rewards in local newspapers seeking the names of arsonists and replanted trees on the site.
“He finally harvested the timber after 50 years for a decent profit. Those beautiful trees averaged around 22 inches in diameter.”
Over time, Giltner’s dad continued to add to his land holdings, eventually accumulating 500 acres in the area near Longville and Ragley. As the elder Giltner grew his knowledge of forestry practices, his stands of hardwood and pine flourished. He learned about forest fire control measures by working with state Extension Service specialists and local fire crews.
“He occasionally climbed the fire towers to see if burns were on or near our properties. Also, he had gridworks of fire lanes plowed on some plots,” explained Giltner.
Paul Giltner made sure his children were involved with his tree farm, recalls George, mixing “weekends, holidays and summer vacations with camping, fishing and working” on the land.
“One of the best things we did in the early days was to attend Forestry Extension meetings in Oakdale,” said George Giltner. “These meetings were most helpful in learning proper record-keeping, tax prep and forest management.”
The property became a certified tree farm sometime before the 1960s, Giltner said.
Paul Giltner was also keen on experimentation, at one point converting his radio shop in Lake Charles into a pine seed production structure.
“Green pine cones were collected, dried and opened, then seeds were de-tailed and striated on shaker table screens,” Giltner explained.
His father then planted the seeds on his newly acquired 240-acre Barnes Creek tract near Longville. Unfortunately, the effort was less than successful, so the Giltners reverted to dibble planting of bare root seedlings. After a failed attempt to remove defective hardwoods by applying herbicide into holes drilled into the trees’ trunks, Paul had more success with a girdling technique learned from the Extension Service.
Though George Giltner’s father started this Louisiana tree farm, the family can trace their zeal for forestry to even earlier ancestors. Grandfather George L. Giltner, a farmer and horse trainer, settled in Louisiana in the 1920s and worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees around the family homeplace near Longville.
Decades before that, George’s great-grandfather Henry Michael Giltner, a minister, farmer and Indian interpreter in Nebraska, promoted reforestation in that state with his friend, a lawyer, newspaper editor and legislator named J. Sterling Morton. According to family history, that collaboration resulted in the establishment of Arbor Day there in the 1870s, an observance that eventually spread to other states and countries.
With that family history as a backdrop, as well as spending ample time “growing up and working on the tree farm,” Giltner said, “I always enjoyed nature. I wondered about the taxonomy, composition of wood, how trees competed and why some soils grew pine trees but not food crops.”
That science interest led him to attain a BS degree in botany and a master’s degree in biology. He worked first as a high school science teacher, chemical officer in the Louisiana National Guard, catalyst research assistant at Citgo and finally as a chemist at ExxonMobil Polymers in Beaumont, Texas. Giltner and his wife, Merlyn, who grew up in Ragley, both loved the southwest Louisiana woods they enjoyed as children, and with their son Kevin often trekked “back home” to visit family and help with the tree farm.
“Merlyn and Kevin put in hard work planting tens of thousands of pine seedlings in the ground,” said Giltner. “In the middle of winter, we dug up heeled-in trees from the garden area, packed them in a four-wheeled trailer, and headed for barren pine beetle spots, logged sites, fire sites or dry hole oil field places. The work was cold, damp and miserable at times with long hours, but we woke upon Monday morning and went to our jobs and school.”
To bear the winter weather, they fashioned a type of domed greenhouse using PVC pipe poles and a polyethylene sheet.
“It would be 35 degrees outside and 75 inside the dome during breaks and lunch,” he recalled. “We worked as a team for a better future.”
Hours of labor on the tree farm not only paid for son Kevin’s college education but also built within him a good work ethic, Giltner said.
The Giltners first sought professional consultation about three decades ago with forester Tim Cooper and developed a written forest management plan. They now work with consulting forester Corey Kirk of DeRidder, who nominated the property for this year’s Louisiana Forestry Association award.
“Mr. George has a lifelong history of tree farming and has a passion for continuing education for all things, including timber and wildlife-related topics,” wrote Kirk in his nomination narrative.
After retiring from ExxonMobil, George and Merylyn decided to build a home adjacent to the tree farm, on land that once belonged to her family. “This property is special because it was my parents’, ” said Merlyn.
The couple’s backyard view includes a well-stocked fishing pond (built by her father), a tiny cottage with dock, a spacious patio, and bountiful fruit and flower gardens. Tucked into a small space in their garage is Giltner’s home laboratory, complete with testing equipment and microscopes, where he performs soil testing and other work.
“I love to study soil,” said Giltner.” He has shared his knowledge of soil science — particularly mycorrhiza and nematodes — with others by speaking at meetings of the Southwest Louisiana Forestry Association and the DeRidder Annual Garden Forum. The Giltners have been hosts for Forestry Field days in years past, once demonstrating the operations of a portable sawmill and another that featured a hayride through 80 acres of their homesite property. As a volunteer, Giltner has taught insect classes for both 4-H and Master Gardeners’ organizations and has written and been the subject of tree farm-related articles for newspapers and magazines. He served as a board member and officer of the LFA and the Beauregard Forestry Association/Southwest Forestry Association for many years.
By operating a spread of 20 to 145-acre plots with varying stages of growth, the Giltners have been able to produce recurring income through the years and reduce risk. Profits from the tree farm helped pay college expenses for son Kevin and other members of the Giltner family.
A quick tour of the Giltner farm reveals the careful nurture this land has enjoyed, through the practice of periodic thinning, maintenance of fire lanes, ongoing control of invasive species and pests and other proactive work. However, one also sees the brutal blows dealt by hurricanes Laura and Delta last fall that took a fearsome toll on the family’s forest; cleanup and restoration work continue this year.
“Merlyn and I evacuated to Plano, Texas, (our son’s home) during the two hurricanes. We returned to roads covered with downed pine trees and many miles of broken electrical lines,” said Giltner. “We had to chain-saw our way in here. House windows were broken, the shop has its 12-foot roll up doors blown out, perimeter fences were down, and our camper was damaged, but habitable for a month’s stay.”
“It was heartbreaking,” added Merlyn. “I couldn’t stand to look at it.”
Neighbors, friends and family helped with supplies, debris clearing and repairs and the Giltner’s son Kevin used his drone to do tree damage surveys. Their forester Corey Kirk assisted with preparation of a timber loss document “which helped our CPA calculate an income tax casualty loss deduction,” explained Giltner.
“I estimated he lost approximately 500 to 600 tons of merchantable timber with nearly 50 percent being pine sawtimber,” said Kirk. “There has been no tree removal process except along portions of the farm’s perimeter fence. We currently have plans to make use of federal funding from EFRP program through the USDA to help clean up the damaged timber, or when it gets dry enough, to have loggers clear-cut the remaining standing timber on the ‘north 40.’ ” He added that larger sawtimber on the ground may still be heavy enough to haul for chips, “but we are nearing the anniversary of Hurricane Laura, so I believe most of the timber on the ground is too far gone. Once clear-cut, it will be replanted.
“Now we are worried about weather events coming this year,” said Giltner, “along with Southern Pine Beetle infections like we experienced in the 1970s and early 1980s. Currently, many of our damaged hurricane trees are dropping sap at our ‘home 80,’ but loggers can remove the troubling trees.”
Looking ahead, he cited concerns about future government and tax changes that might affect property owners, such as higher taxes for road improvements and private property restrictions, as well as suburban expansion into agricultural and forestlands.
Giltner envisions the family’s goal is “to always have a fully stocked tree farm of hardwood and pine for the well-being of the community, the land and our family. We want to have sustainable forests that create clean water supplies, wildlife habitat and occasional income for our family after we are gone.”
Giltner believes his son Kevin will eventually choose to relocate to the family land and continue the tree farm tradition. His sister Bobbie also owns nearby land.
He appreciates the evolution of forestry practices he has witnessed.
“Over the years, vast improvements have occurred in forestry,” said Giltner. “We have gone from wasteful over-cutting by removing only the best tree bole, to innovations such as entire log use, equipment innovations for safety, best management practices, elimination of free-range grazing and the use of GPS and drones.
“With state and community common sense efforts, there is a bright future for forestry.”
(Melanie Torbett is a contributing writer to Forests & People and a forest landowner.)