Forest Landowner — March April 2011
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Ryan Klesko & Big K Farms
Pete Williams

FORMER MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL STAR RYAN KLESKO LOVES TO TALK ABOUT WALK-OFF HOMERUNS. BUT HE ALSO HAS A PASSION FOR TIMBERLAND, FOREST MANAGEMENT, HUNTING AND THE EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS OFFERED AT HIS BIG K TREE FARM IN JONES COUNTY, GEORGIA.

He’s just three years removed from a 16-year baseball career, but the lakefront hunting lodge on the 1,560-acre timber property is more a tribute to his enjoyment of pine rather than maple and ash, the wood used for the bats he swung as a slugging outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, and San Francisco Giants. Other than a few framed photographs of former teammates hunting on the property, there’s nothing to indicate the lodge was built three years by Klesko and former Braves teammate John Smoltz, who together purchased 1,269 acres in 1998, an adjacent 286 acres in 2001, and a small out parcel that brought the total size to 1,560 acres.

Long before Klesko’s baseball career ended, he envisioned a second career as an outdoorsman. These days, he spends most of his time living on the property with his wife and son when they’re not traveling the globe shooting footage for his “Hardcore Hunting” cable television program and running several related businesses.

“Big K” is a tribute both to Klesko’s name and to the letter “K,” the baseball symbol for strikeout. Smoltz, a hardthrowing pitcher, struck out 3,084 batters in his career.

“I was always an avid outdoorsman,” says Klesko, 39, who grew up in Southern California. “I had several friends do well with land and one of them was always saying, ‘Son, they don’t make anymore land and the population is not decreasing anytime.’ Over time, it’s one of the safest bets you can find – the land and the timber.” Smoltz, who retired from baseball after the 2009 season and now serves as a baseball commentator for several television networks, is an avid golfer who visits the property just once or twice a year. He viewed Big K more as a timber investment and occasional fishing retreat.

That makes the Big K unusual as a forest management project, says Lynn Hooven, a retired forester who was hired in 2002 as a consultant for the farm. Although income from timber was important, the forest stewardship plan was developed with an eye toward hunting, fishing, and education.
“From the beginning the objective has been to encourage multiuse management of the farm’s resources – timber, wildlife, soil, and water – for conservation, recreation, education, and aesthetics,” Hooven says.

Since much of the timberland was of similar age, the property was subdivided into nine working compartments using boundary lines, natural barriers and interior roads. The compartments range in size from 130 to 280 acres with about 1,000 acres total planted in loblolly ranging in age from 27 to 42 years of age.

Little thinning had occurred when Hooven took over.

His timber action plan for 2002-2015 calls for pulpwood and chip-n-saw thinnings, with the pulpwood thinnings now complete and the chip-n-saw thinnings underway.

“A lot of people thin once, heavily,” Hooven says. “I didn’t want to thin the whole farm once because then you have a uniform stocking and I wanted diversity in terms of secondary growth.”

The roads, once a problem area after bad weather, have become a showcase, with 30 miles of roads accessible either by truck or four-wheeler. Matt Klesko, Ryan’s cousin, showed off the trails during a sunset SUV tour shortly after Christmas. Whitetail deer seem to scamper in every direction.

Matt, who works the property and also serves as a cameraman on his cousin’s hunting show, shook his head. “You can sit it a stand for hours and not see a deer.”

Two dozen wildlife openings of one-half acre to eight acres were established to enhance the wildlife populations, providing a diversity of food sources. For 12 of the openings, Hooven has posted birdhouses and signs that pay tribute to famous baseball parks such as Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

There’s even AT&T Park, where Klesko ended his career in San Francisco with the Giants in 2007. That year, during a roadtrip to Atlanta to face the Braves, he brought teammate Barry Bonds to Big K for some skeet shooting. Bonds had never fired a gun, but shot the first two he saw. “Next thing I know he’s an avid outdoorsman,” Klesko says.

Big K has played a huge role in forest education, hosting hundreds of students, teachers, and legislators. Visitors spend time in the 75-seat “Right Field Outdoor Classroom,” sitting on benches made of forest products, and learning about prescribed burns, soil and water conversation, forest and wildlife management, and carbon sequestration.

The classroom is a working tree farm, exactly one acre, which is a valuable visual.

“Most people don’t understand what an acre represents,” Hooven says. “I give them an inventory of the number of trees planted originally and how we’ll lose two to four trees a year if they’re overcrowded. The tree-huggers will say you shouldn’t cut any trees, but then I’ll show them how much faster trees grow after thinning. I’ll show them tree height and diameter studies and it’s really eye-opening for them.”

Each year, Klesko hosts a group of physically challenged people for a hunt, even helping them into stands. A group from Wesleyan College, a women’s school in Macon, recently watched a controlled burn as part of a conservation biology class. Teachers visit the farm in the summer for continuing education hours. Big K has partnered with Macon’s Museum of Arts and Sciences On several forest-related initiatives. Other groups enjoy the one-mile nature hike, identifying flowers and trees or seeing the remnants of a moonshine still.

“Lynn is the beating heart of this place,” Klesko says.

“We have thousands of trees on this place and I’m convinced he has every one of them named.” Hooven points out that Klesko is actively involved. “How many landowners do you know who are gracious enough to let people come in like that? The education is not possible without his graciousness.”

Hooven makes it a point to bring Georgia’s freshmen legislators out to Big K every two years and Klesko meets with them. “We tell them that if an environmental bill comes across your desk and you don’t take the time to understand it, shame on you,” Hooven says.

Since Hooven lives in nearby Macon and spent 34 years with the Georgia Forestry Commission, he receives numerous queries from groups, but has to pick and choose.

“I tell everyone that they go as guests of Ryan and John; it’s not a public park,” Hooven says. “We can’t entertain everyone who calls so we try to get a good cross section.” In 2006, Big K was chosen as the Georgia Tree Farm of The Year and was a finalist for National Tree Farm in 2007.

An innovator in carbon sequestration, it became in 2008 the first property listed on Georgia’s Carbon Registry. That year, Klesko gave a keynote address in Atlanta on Forestry Offsets and Industry strategies. Last year, the Arbor Day Foundation gave Big K the “The Good Steward Award,” which recognizes landowners who practice sustainability on private lands from which others can learn. Klesko has spoken regularly about carbon credits and forestry programs.

“It’s important that people know how trees clean the pollution in the air,” Klesko says. “I try to do my part because I want my kids’ kids to enjoy the things I’ve been able to enjoy.”

Klesko owns or co-owns nine other properties, all at least 200 acres, including a 3,000-acre ranch in Northern California. None have significant timber, though he’s always looking and offering insight on timberland to former baseball colleagues.

“I get quite a few calls,” he says. “A lot of ballplayers who live in the south are outdoorsmen and they’ve seen how it can pay off as an investment and yet be something they can really enjoy.”
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