Gary Schneider’s goal is nothing less than to restore the Acadian forests of Prince Edward Island, a place renowned for green farmland. One wood at a time, he might very well succeed.
Gary Schneider sees himself as something of a matchmaker. “I try to get people to fall in love with their forests,” says the buoyant founder and manager of the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project on 2000 acres of crown land east of Charlottetown, PEI.
Given his enthusiasm for his work – “I adore my job,” he gushes – and the many potent love potions at his fingertips, Schneider has good reason to believe he’ll succeed in fostering a love affair between the people of Prince Edward Island and their Acadian Forests.
Pausing to marvel at a patch of pink lady slipper orchids on a walk along the Wildflower Nature Trail or spotting a spunky nuthatch marching down a tree trunk along the Stream Trail where Sir Andrew Macphail himself once took daily dips is an irresistible proposal from nature to many visitors. (Raised on the property, Macphail was McGill University’s first professor of the History of Medicine and founded the Canadian Medical Association Journal. For his efforts as a doctor in World War I, he was knighted.) For others, it takes a visit from Gary Schneider himself. “People tell me I’ve gone for a walk in their woods with them, and it’s changed the way they looked at their forest. I love working one on one with landowners.”
But as the saying goes, one can’t live by love alone. The Macphail Woods Project employs a dozen or so seasonal workers, and they have to be paid. Grants from government and private foundations supplies some of the required funding, but the Project itself generates revenue.
Aside from offering guided tours of the five nature trails – add the Rhododendron Trail, the Woodland Trail and the Native Plant Garden Trail to the first two – Schneider and his colleagues deliver popular wildlife and forestry workshops. They run a nursery where they seed and sell native plant species that are also used for on-site forest restoration. They run summer nature camps for youth, and they’ve planted trees at about 20 schools in the area. At the old Macphail homestead, staff and volunteers operate a tearoom, host art displays and sell nature guidebooks, many written by Schneider himself.
Future plans include a portable sawmill and, ideally, a woodworking shop where staff can build furniture, crafts and other goods to sell. Schneider likes diversity from as well as in his forests. “I love cutting trees. I burn wood. I like to build wooden houses. I think wood is a great product. But if you look at all the benefits that a forest gives you, the wood is secondary.”
As with many love affairs, Schneider’s relationship with PEI seemed mismatched at first. Schneider is a journalist from St. Catherine’s, Ontario – the son of a bank manager, one of six children. As for agriculture-heavy PEI, it’s the last province one would associate with woods of any kind. Schneider himself admits, “For somebody interested in forests, this is probably the last place you think you’d wind up.”
It took a mutual acquaintance to introduce Schneider to his adopted province. While working with a small newspaper in New Brunswick 34 years ago, Gary’s brother invited him to live on a piece of land he’d purchased on the Island. While living there, he got interested in birds and their habitat. “The more I learned about the native forests, the more I fell in love with them,” says Schneider.
Schneider’s goal is nothing less than the restoration of the province’s forests. Employed by the Environmental Coalition of Prince Edward Island, Schneider manages 26 distinct pieces of land – most of them attached to the original Macphail property – under a 10-year renewable lease with the province. For each, he’s developed a detailed management plan.
In a press release from 2005, Jamie Ballem, Minister of Environment, Energy and Forestry at the time, said, “If this partnership is successful, the Province may enter into similar public land management agreements with other non-profit groups.” Given that the province is the largest landowner on the Island at more than 50,000 hectares, the impact of the Macphail project on PEI’s landscape could be profound.
Schneider describes the Acadian Forest as a “condition” more than an inventory of specific trees and shrubs. Because of varying conditions and a history of clear cutting and intensive forest use, no single location contains all 26 species native to PEI’s Acadian forests. But many do have the three most prominent conifers – red spruce, white pine and hemlock – and the three main deciduous trees – sugar maple, beech and yellow birch.
The original Macphail property was one dominated by scrubby woods and dotted with gravel pits. Sometimes working one tree at a time, Schneider nursed the place back to health by bringing in rotting wood, compost and even soil to the worst areas.
The Macphail woods now includes everything from ground covers and shrubs to canopy trees and trees that will eventually become giants. Insects, animals and birds have returned. Seedlings he planted fifteen years ago are now thriving. “I’ve got red oak over 20 feet high,” says a proud Schneider. “In a hundred years, it’s going to be incredible,” says Schneider. “But even in 20 or 25 years, it’ll be fantastic.”
For 19 years, Schneider’s infectious affection for Acadian forests has been spreading across the island and over the generations. “This is an agricultural province,” Schneider admits, but he also sees strong evidence of change. The days of farming marginal land are numbered. Buffer zone legislation protects streams. People with giant lawns are asking the Macphail project for help in transforming what Schneider calls their great five acre lawns into Acadian forest. “People are starting to think maybe we could all contribute.”
If he continues his matchmaking, Gary Schneider will one day find that an entire province is smitten with his own beloved forest.
For further information, visit www.macphailwoods.org
Flyover of the Macphail Woods homestead and surrounding area. Photo courtesy of Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project
Gary Schneider tries to get people to fall in love with forests. Photo courtesy of Community Forests Canada
Macphail Woods native plant nursery. Photo courtesy of Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project
A stream runs through it — efforts to preserve PEI’s forests are a labour of love for Gary Schneider. Photo courtesy of Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project