The Tree Keeper
Gary Schneider loves native forests. He’s encouraging everyone else in P.E.I. to love them too
Gary Schneider loves native forests. He’s encouraging everyone else in P.E.I.TO love them too
By the turn of the 20th century, more than 75 per cent of Prince Edward Island’s forests — sugar maple, yellow birch, red oak, American beech, eastern hemlock, red spruce, white pine and white ash — had been cleared for agriculture. When, after the Second World War, the island forests were allowed to regenerate, the only tree still standing took over: the fast-growing, short-lived, ubiquitous white spruce.
The dominance of this unimpressive tree across the Gentle Island gave rise to a culture of clearcutting, and when government and industry decided to replant, they did so with non-native Austrian pine and Japanese larch ... and more spruce. This approach had a heavy cost for local biodiversity, from canopies above to understorey below, plants and animals both.
It was this reality more than 25 years ago that spurred Gary Schneider into action. Formerly a journalist from Ontario,
in 1989 he helped found the Environmental Coalition of Prince Edward Island, a registered Canadian charity focused on “education, advocacy and action.” One of its main areas of work since 1991 has been the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project. The mandate of this 58-hectare ecological education centre, trail hub and native plant nursery, which Schneider manages to this day, is the restoration and propagation of original, native flora throughout the island province.
The centre began by selling native trees, which found their way onto homesteads, woodlots and Crown land. Eventually, the centre began growing shrubs as well, then wildflowers, then ferns — all of which found a receptive market. “We’re growing more diversity than anyone in the Maritimes,” he said, “by a long shot.”
Schneider freely admits that replanting the entirety of P.E.I.’S defunct forests would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, but that’s not his intention. Instead he hopes to establish seed banks that will, in time, be spread by the forces of provincial ecology to retake the red dirt. So far, it’s working. Several of the plants under the care of Macphail Woods, declared at risk province-wide by the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, are now, thanks to the Macphail Woods team, on the path to recovery.
One in particular is witch hazel, a shrub listed as “critically imperiled” by the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre. Since collecting some seeds 20 years back, Schneider has grown, distributed and planted in excess of 10,000 individuals. Another, more recent rescue, is the round-leaf dogwood, a shrub that had been reduced to only two individual plants known to persist in the province. The dozens grown at Macphail Woods from their seeds have already yielded thousands of seeds in turn. “A lot of our at-risk plants are no longer at-risk,” said Schneider.
Not satisfied with rebuilding of provincial forests, Schneider has increasingly taken aim at the attitudes that caused their initial downfall. “The education stuff has turned into the biggest thing we do,” he says. Each summer, Macphail Woods engages hundreds of volunteer students across the island in replanting excursions to spark an early love for nature. They also use their lands — in several stages of recovery — to demonstrate the value of diversity in provincial woodlots for members of industry.
To champion sustainable forestry, Macphail Woods cuts as well as replants, using value-added forestry techniques — such as “selection cutting” to ensure a healthy and ongoing forested area — on 800 hectares of public land, put under the centre’s management by the provincial government in 2005. Upon entering this landmark agreement, Schneider promised the following: to plant 200 rare or unusual native species on these hectares every year, to add more wood than is removed, and to plan harvests around the various needs of local ecology, such as breeding seasons. Finally, the wood they harvest will always be of the highest quality. “It all comes down to not ripping your forests apart and just hoping they’ll come back in 30 years,” he says.
Schneider is a self-proclaimed lover of forests who takes great joy in returning the native ash, hemlock and pine growing tall and strong on lands once solely dedicated to growing potatoes. He wants everyone to love them as much as he does. “We’ll do whatever we can to help you fall in love with forests.”a
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author in the Maritimes.
SUSTAINING DIVERSITY Since 1991 Schneider has been running the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project