Spotlight: Matt and Jessica Zabel - Lake Elmo, Minn.

Landowner Leaders – Joining an Organization

family protrait and Matt and Jessica Zabel with their three childernMatt and Jessica Zabel were starting to think they might never find their dream property. What they really wanted was a piece of woods their three young children could play in, that was also close to Matt's job in the Twin Cities. However, the right spot, at the right price, eluded them. Then in January of 2014, they saw a listing for an 11-acre parcel in Lake Elmo that fit all of their criteria. "It was one of those negative 40 degree days when people were throwing the pots of boiling water out the window and it was freezing instantly," Jessica says ruefully, "and we for some reason decided we were going to go look at a house, and trudge through 3 feet of snow to go look at the trees."

The frigid trek was worth it. The Zabels immediately fell in love with the land and its towering red pines. Furthermore, the property was under a conservation easement with Minnesota Land Trust. This meant the land could never be further developed, which lowered the real estate value and made the property more affordable for the young couple. It also fit their personal land ethic. "The more trees the better, as far as we were concerned," says Jessica. After finding this special place, the Zabels wanted to learn how to care for it. Again, they had trouble finding what they needed: "someone 85 who could walk the whole property, identify every tree and its condition, and what it needs or doesn't need," says Matt. "Someone to give us guidance and come up with a land management plan," adds Jessica.

As luck would have it, their answer arrived in the mail. A letter from the Minnesota Forestry Association (MFA) advertising a new program for woodland owners called "Boots on Your Ground." The program offers landowners two hours with a professional forester at a discounted rate. "It was kind of a no-brainer. It just seemed really like a great value," says Matt. The Zabels signed up for the program and soon met with Barb Spears, a private forester. "She brought a bunch of materials with her—brochures and pamphlets about trees, different plant species and animals, invasive stuff, and diseases," says Matt. After visiting their land and talking to them about their goals, Barb connected them with a logger who specializes in small parcels, so they can thin their crowded pine stand. After sifting through a lot of information that only seemed to apply to landowners with larger parcels, the Zabels were grateful that MFA's program provided such a good fit for their needs. "It seemed like the right organization geared t wards people like me," says Matt.

Matt and Jessica look forward to further involvement with MFA, as their busy schedule allows. Matt has already taken a "Lumber for Woodworkers" course with the organization. "We do some woodworking projects ourselves, and the idea of using material from here is really appealing." Additionally, Barb introduced Jessica to the local Metro Area chapter of the Minnesota Women's Woodland Network. Jessica looks forward to sharing knowledge with other women woodland owners. "Living out in the country and having this rural experience isn't very common in my social network. I have other parents to talk to about 'mom stuff' but I don't have a network of people that are out here living among the trees."

mowed lawn with sunshine coming through trees.

Most of all, the couple looks forward to enjoying their woods with their children. Matt mentions their 5-year-old son and 3-year-old twin daughters are becoming more adventurous in their woods: "This year they've really started playing more in the woods, which I think is fun to see." Jessica wants their kids to grow up with the sort of outdoor experiences she remembers from summer camps in her youth. "It's sort of like we're living in our own little private summer camp," she says with a smile, "And we get to be here all the time."

To learn more about the Minnesota Forestry Association/Boots on Your Ground program and the Metro Area Minnesota Women's Woodland Network.

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