Landowner Highlight: Mike and Laura Jackson

by Liz Brewer, Outreach Specialist, AMJV

When Laura Jackson’s parents let their kids pick which part of the family’s 700-acre dairy farm in Pennsylvania they each wanted to inherit, she and her husband Mike knew exactly what they wanted. They chose 120 acres on the lower slope of Tussey Mountain that had three open fields and 105 acres of forest. The Jacksons knew the history of the land; it had been high-graded twice (loggers cut the best trees and left the rest) and invasive plants were beginning to overtake the forest. The three fields were not yet the picturesque “Mountain Meadows” they would name their property, but the retired science teachers knew the land here could be so much more with a little care.

Mike and Laura Jackson beside one of their white oak trees. Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson

Although they knew their forest had invasive plants, attending Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship training in 2000 opened their eyes to just how bad it was. They began to notice privet, garlic mustard, oriental bittersweet, and others that they hadn’t recognized before. They learned that some of the relatively common garden plants they loved were also invasive. Luckily, the stewardship training had also taught them how to get rid of the plants overtaking their property. They were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work improving the health of the land they loved.

Managing invasive plants requires diligence – over 200 common mullein were pulled from one of their wildflower meadows before they could set seed. Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson

The Jacksons have participated in many landowner programs over the years. They developed their first Forest Stewardship Plan in 2002 after applying for assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). With the help of a consulting forester, they created a 10-year plan to manage the invasive plants and improve the health of their forest for sustainability and wildlife. In 2012, they learned about the new Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) program that would create habitat for Golden-winged Warblers. They began their WLFW project in 2014 and fenced the area after harvest to protect what turned out to be the best bumper crop of acorns and hickory nuts they had seen in years.

 One of Mike and Laura’s favorite spots is the Grouse Tangle Trail – an island of trees within the Golden-winged Warbler habitat project where Cerulean Warblers nest and many species of wildflowers bloom each spring – protected by an 8-foot deer exclosure fence. Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson

In 2021, they joined the Family Forest Carbon Program (FFCP), a joint program by American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy that provides financial assistance to help them treat the invasive species on their land. Additionally, they receive income for allowing the young forest created for Golden-winged Warblers to store carbon as it grows into a mature forest. They also joined the Woodland Stewardship Network as “Keystone Landowners” and helped encourage their neighbors to receive free forest management plans. They met consulting forester, Joshua Rittenhouse, through the program.

In 2014, the Jacksons started building shallow impoundments on their property to help wildlife.  Mike built this shallow impoundment in the woods in 2016 where a lot of black walnut trees grow, so they named it the Walnut Grove Vernal Pool. This spring there are 33 wood frog egg masses and 3 spotted salamander egg masses. Build it and they will come! Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson

The Jacksons are now on their third Forest Stewardship Plan and second NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program. The impact of their work shines through the natural regeneration in their forests and the flourishing meadows filled with native wildflowers and buzzing pollinators. They shared how rewarding watching their forest rebound has been: “Even though we didn’t get Golden-winged Warblers, we do have nesting Kentucky Warblers and Worm-eating Warblers. We know we’ve improved the forest a lot.”

The Jacksons were thrilled to find this uncommon four-toed salamander in the Walnut Grove Vernal Pool, a species of special concern in Pennsylvania. Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson

“It’s really what launched my consulting career,” Rittenhouse said of his experience working with the Jacksons. As the Keystone Landowners, they introduced Rittenhouse to neighboring landowners who were interested in receiving a forest management plan. He created plans for three adjacent properties, all struggling with invasive plants overtaking their woodlands. Thanks to the connections the Jacksons helped build, several of their neighbors have gone on to apply for assistance through the FFCP and NRCS. “They’re the golden standard when it comes to stewardship,” Rittenhouse shared. “If every landowner utilized the resources on their property, our landscape would look much different. It would be very much improved from some of the degraded habitats we have.”

The coral hairstreak is a rare butterfly that the Jacksons recently found in one of their native wildflower meadows. Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson

Legacy is central to why the Jacksons are so passionate about protecting and improving their woodlands. They chose to build their home close to the remnants of the home Laura’s great, great, great-great-grandfather built in 1811 when he first purchased the property, as they wanted to honor their family’s long history with the land. They are also looking towards the future and planning for the next generations. In 2010, they put all their land into a conservation easement with Western Pennsylvania Conservancy so it cannot be subdivided or developed. They have willed their land to their niece and her family.

Wood Ducks nest each year in a nest box that Mike built and put in their small woodland pond, but they also nest in natural tree cavities in their woods. Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson

The Jacksons are passionate about sharing the knowledge they have learned over the years with other landowners. They have become certified tree farmers through the American Tree Farm System and serve as board members for the Woodland Owners of the Southern Alleghenies. Laura also serves on the Council for the James C. Finley Center for Private Forest at Penn State. They actively engage in outreach to landowners, sharing resources to help them better manage their own woodlands. “Attend as many programs as you can. We have learned so much over the years!” Laura and Mike offered when asked what they would share with other landowners. “The more training and education you can get, the better equipped you’ll be to manage your forests.”