Seeing the forest and the keys

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Pine trees don't really care if musician Chuck Leavell played with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers.

Were you to ask a fluttering dove, 8-point buck or any strutting tom if they knew the Alabama-born singer/songwriter also collaborated with Chuck Berry, George Harrison and Aretha Franklin, that critter would probably shrug.

And to his music fans, Leavell's world-renowned accomplishments as a conservationist, tree farmer, writer and hunter, may come as a complete surprise.

But when he isn't traveling the corners of the world to play music, the silver-maned Leavell dedicates much of his time to inform and educate people about conservation. In books, speeches and in practice, the dual Georgia and Alabama Music Hall of Fame inductee stresses the importance of the responsible management of forests, wildlife and other natural resources.

A special friend to STIHL and an admitted lumberjack sports fan, Leavell recently performed the National Anthem on the final day of competition at the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS U.S. Championships in Columbus, Ga. With wife Rose Lane at his side, the unassuming rocker made the hour-long trip from the family's 2000-acre Charlane Plantation just south of Macon, Ga.

After his soulful rendition of the "The Star-Spangled Banner," ESPNOutdoors.com sat down with Leavell to find out more about his other passions besides music; trees, hunting and the outdoors.

ESPNOutdoors.com: How did you become interested in tree farming and conservation in general?

Chuck Leavell: "Well, I have been a tree farmer for about 30 years now. My wife, Rose Lane, and her family have been connected to the land in one way or another for generations, literally. Her father was a farmer, her grandfather was a farmer and he tended the forest as well."

"Back in 1981, her grandmother passed away and left some land to Rose Lane. And all of a sudden, it became our responsibility to be good stewards of the land, so that's what led me into sustainable forestry."

EO.com: How did your relationship with STIHL and STIHL TIMBERSPORTS form?

CL: "Well the way STIHL and I got together was kind of interesting: I did an interview with The New York Times some years back — must have been probably 12 years ago or so — a nice big spread in the art section of the newspaper on a Sunday. And the last question the interviewer asked me was, 'What kind of chain saw do you use?'"

"As fate would have it, the logger that I used was a guy named Charles Hill. I had just consulted him (and) I said, 'Charles, I need to buy a chain saw, what kind of saw should I get?' He said, 'well, you know we are pros, we like STIHL.'"

"And so my answer in the interview was something to the effect that, 'well, I use what the pros use — I use a STIHL.' Well, listen man ... about three or four days later, I got a call from STIHL saying, "thanks, that was really cool." The next thing I know we are becoming friends and our relationship has lasted over 10 years now."

EO.com: That just shows how spontaneity and honesty can spur any type of relationship.

CL: One never knows how things may come about.

EO.com: Some people may question a tree farmer who gets together with a company that makes chain saws, but I'm sure you can explain why it would be a perfect fit.

CL: "Oh, for heaven's sake, yes. I mean those of us that own and manage most of America's forest lands — private forest land owners of America — we are into sustainability and we of course want to harvest our trees. Listen, trees give us materials to make books and magazines and newspapers. They give us, you know, mineral spirits and cleaning agents and so many other things. Some 5,000 products that we use in our everyday lives contain, in one way or another, the resource of wood — it's really remarkable."

"So the thing for the public to remember is that trees are natural, they're organic and they are renewable. That is the most important thing — so of course we want to harvest our trees and use this marvelous resource for these purposes. And we want to do it very carefully and very wisely. That's what sustainability is all about."

EO.com: Over the last few years, we've seen wildfires in south Georgia, north Florida and all over California and the West. What's the biggest lesson in preventing forest fires and teaching people how to manage their personal lands?

CL: "Well, you know it is so devastating when we see these terrible wildfires that occur, whether here in Georgia or what's happening now out in California. Look, management is a good thing and when we talk about forest management, one of the things we talk about is removing the buildup of underbrush within the forest."

"Here in the South we even perform what we call a prescribed burn which is something I do annually at my place, not on every acre but about a third of the acreage we have. The purpose is to remove that underbrush to prevent wildfires — that's one of the purposes. It also helps the habitat for wildlife and helps to discourage the unwanted competition in your forest."

EO.com: It also provides defensible space between structures, does it not?

CL: Oh yeah, absolutely. So those kinds of techniques — and I'm not suggesting for prescribed burning to be used everywhere — but I am suggesting that we need to look at the removal of this underbrush in one way or another because that is a large part of what's causing these fires and people need to understand [that].

"The general public needs to understand that forest management is a good thing that will help protect our forest and help to lower the incidence of these tragic, tragic wildfires."

EO.com: Lastly, I understand you are a hunter and you enjoy hunting when you're not on the road. Do you take hunting as seriously and as responsibly as you take forestry and tree conservation?

CL: "Oh, yes. I think hunting, for those of us that engage, we are the conservationists for wildlife and for the habitat for wildlife — because without good habitat we aren't going to have that wildlife."

"So you know, again, those of us that are tree farmers or people engaged in agriculture, we are very concerned about the wildlife that lives on our land and that's equally important for me as a tree farmer as it is for me to look after our forest and what's in the forest."

EO.com: "What is your favorite kind of hunting?"

CL: "My favorite hunting is upland bird hunting. I love to be out there with the dogs."

EO.com: What kind of gun do you prefer to use?

CL: "You know, a 20-gauge. I'm not good enough to get down to that .28 or .410 yet, but maybe one of these days. But I enjoy shooting a Berretta 20-gauge and a double-barreled gun — a gentleman's gun — which is what we refer to for quail hunting.

"But, of course I do engage in other hunting as well, some deer hunting and turkey hunting; I love to turkey hunt. As a matter of fact, I just gave the keynote address at the last convention for the National Wild Turkey Federation and they are wonderful, wonderful people."