Man donates 14,000 acres to Nature Conservancy

Sunday, April 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) _ For as long as he can remember, the grassy hills and bluffs in Cherokee County have been a part of John T. Nickel's life.

Nickel first got his hands dirty working at his parents' nursery near Muskogee as a child. Then he moved to Cherokee County, where he started Greenleaf, a wholesale nursery that is one of the largest in the nation.

Now, the successful businessman, whose ventures include building a winery with his brother in California, is giving thousands of acres of land away.

In a ceremony Monday, Nickel will officially dedicate 14,000 acres to the stewardship of The Nature Conservancy. The donation will occur in 1,000-acre parcels over the next 10 to 15 years.

``I turned 65 last fall. Somebody told me that someday I am going to die. I had never really thought about that,'' Nickel said. ``It's a relief to me to know this will be preserved, a place where you can recharge your batteries and your soul.''

Chris Wilson, a Missouri native, will be director of the John T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve.

``I really see it today as one of the last opportunities to preserve one of the last intact, undeveloped parts of the Ozarks,'' Wilson said. ``Today that is important, but with development elsewhere, in 20-30 years it might be all that's left intact.''

Nickel first saw the land as a college student on a field trip and fell in love with it.

He purchased the land in 1989 and named it J5, a version of a nickname the Cherokee employees of his nursery gave him, John Five Cents.

He had 500 cattle on the land, but sold the herd when he reached the agreement to give the property to The Nature Conservancy last fall.

Nickel has lived in Aspen and Vail, Colo., but he didn't hesitate to leave the Rockies for the western edge of the Ozarks he remembered as a child.

``I would always look to the east and see the hills,'' he said. ``It was almost primitive then.''

Apples and wild plums, certain species of grasses and wildflowers are found there. Pine trees, oaks, cottonwood and sycamore cover the landscape with freshwater springs flowing throughout.

Deer and wild turkey have replaced the cows and pine warblers and bluebirds inhabit the trees.

The preserve will be The Nature Conservancy's second-largest preserve in Oklahoma. The 40,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County is the largest and the third-largest is the 3,236-acre of the Cucumber Creek Preserve.

``I have always had a love for nature,'' Nickel said. ``I don't know how to put it into words. Something about this country . . . it has sunk into my bones.''