September 23, 2011

Group-owned land to be used for veterans

CONCORD TOWNSHIP -- A man who spent 23 years building skylines is restoring more than 700 acres to their natural state for the benefit of disabled veterans.


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As an ironworker with New York City's Structural Ironworkers Local 361, John Sferazo said he knows not just how to build -- but to take down buildings. He showed that ability after 9/11 when he volunteered to remove iron debris.

After four days, he helped search for bodies.

"All we found were pieces," he said on Thursday, standing next to a field in rural Somerset County.

Carrying human remains out of the disaster zone gave him post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. But the work he did then has motivated him to build anew. This time, it's a forest.

Land off Route 16 once belonged to an asphalt-producing plant. Other parts were heavily forested. Now, Sferazo, who was raised in Maine, has turned what used to be sand and gravel into fields and trees.

The non-profit group American Greenlands Restoration Inc., of which is he president, owns the 709 acres composing Owen's Marsh Restoration Project. The land is used for a variety of purposes: as a place for disabled veterans to hunt or fish, growing blight-resistant chestnut trees, wildlife revival and university research.

About 80 people from county, state and federal agencies, in addition to volunteers, veterans, legislators and people from the Maine State Police and Somerset County Sheriff's Office, gathered for a dedication of the site on Thursday. A film crew from Animal Planet was also there to produce a segment on Maine wardens.

Sferazo has been working on the project for 11 years and is still planting trees, acquiring land and has plans for a wildlife rehabilitation facility.

Through the free Pine Grove Program, run by Bob and Andrea Howe, who own Pine Grove Lodge in Pleasant Ridge Plantation, disabled veterans, first responders and their immediate family use the property for outdoor therapy.

"We're using the healing effects and the opportunities that being outdoors offers these people," Sferazo, of Huntington Station, N.Y., said. More than 100 veterans have used the site so far this year.

He receives some donations to run American Greenlands, but has mostly paid for the $100,000 per year project himself, he said. To cover costs, he took out a mortgage on his home and used his savings, annuity and topping out fund, which is received by ironworkers.

He also received funding from the Conservation Stewardship Program, through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Much work has been done by volunteers. Dan Houssock, of East Madison, volunteered for the past year with Herb Hingley, of Pleasant Ridge, to spread fertilizer, do maintenance and cut brush at the site.

"I thought it was a great idea, so I didn't even think twice," said the U.S. Army veteran.

Bringing vets together

The project has brought together many veterans, including those who are disabled. The land has gravel roads, and hunting blinds are accessible by wheelchair.

"It's a very nice idea," veteran David Nevedonsky, of Winslow, said about the property. Nevedonsky, who said he was bayoneted during the Vietnam War, has come to Owen's Marsh twice to hunt turkeys. He added he liked seeing the chestnut trees.

More than 50 chestnut trees are making a comeback on the property. After the chestnut blight fungus destroyed most chestnut trees in Maine, the American Chestnut Foundation is helping to restore them.

Scientists believe they have developed a blight-resistant seed, said Glen Rea, president of the Maine chapter, but they won't know for sure until 40 or 50 years have passed.

Rea talked Thursday while standing in a grove of three-year-old chestnut trees. They are enclosed in wire cages to protect them from deer and moose.

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