The Tree Keeper

Gary Sch­nei­der loves na­tive forests. He’s en­cour­ag­ing ev­ery­one else in P.E.I. to love them too

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Zack Met­calfe Pho­tog­ra­phy by Aaron Mckenzie Fraser

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

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