University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

The Woodsworker

Peter Schleifenbaum and his one-of-a-kind Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve show that well-managed forests can serve the needs of commercial logging and conservationists. We can have our timber and trees, too

Christine Vance has spent the past two summers suspended from the treetops of a white pine and sugar maple forest in Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve. It’s hard to imagine a terrestrial creature like Vance feeling at home on a catwalk more than 20 metres above the forest floor, but the bird’s-eye view offers the forestry student a rare glimpse of the life forms in an old-growth ecosystem. “You can only think of so much in a stuffy lab in Toronto,” she says. “Field research is worth more than anything that class time alone can offer. When you’re here, your ideas

As part of her master’s thesis project, Vance is working on an inventory of insects in the forest canopy some 2 1/2 hours north of Toronto. When compared to bug populations living at ground level, Vance’s baseline catalogue of creepy-crawlies along the half-kilometre walkway will provide a piece of the puzzle about the overall understanding of the forest ecosystem. Her data will benefit the forest industry, but, more important, the experience will place her on the leading edge of conservation-minded professionals trained in sustainable forestry practices.

Ideas like “conservation” and “sustainability” are the watchwords at Haliburton Forest, although they may fly in the face of commonly held notions of forestry. At 60,000 acres, the land is the largest privately owned property in central Ontario. It is rich in hardwood forests, features 50 lakes and supports a host of wildlife species including bear, deer, wolf, moose, fox, beaver and birds of prey. It is also home to a 10-member wolf pack that lives in captivity, and a wolf research centre. Throughout the year, recreationists flock to Haliburton Forest to enjoy camping, hiking, angling, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, mountain biking, orienteering and climbing in a wilderness setting.

Haliburton Forest, however, is neither ivory tower nor environmental theme park. The forest supports a thriving eastern-hemlock timber business and is the source for EcoLog building kits, which become rustic structures most commonly sold as cottages, cabins and camp buildings. With its multi-use mandate, the reserve is a community bulwark, an international leader in education and sustainable management and a recognized forestry model for the future.

The mastermind behind the operation is 40-year-old U of T adjunct forestry professor Peter Schleifenbaum, who has been managing the land for a dozen years since leaving his native Germany. When Schleifenbaum’s father bought Haliburton Forest 40 years ago, it had been a high-grade operation where only the biggest, best trees were harvested for lumber. The large parcel of land had been all but stripped of its valuable white pines by the end of the 19th century. And the records from a nearby mill between 1946 and 1971 show that some 150 million board feet of its lumber came primarily from Haliburton Forest trees.

Haliburton Forest is proof that it is never too late to restore a wild landscape. Schleifenbaum’s management plan puts the health of the forest complex first by posing questions such as: How do we log and do minimum damage? How do we protect cavity or seed trees? How can we open an area to light for new growth? How do we log so that we will not only have trees but a complete forest into perpetuity? “We still don’t understand our forests very well,” says Schleifenbaum. “They are a complex of life forms into which we have surprisingly little insight. So we have to constantly evaluate the relationships among the trees, soil, wildlife, fungi, water and sunlight that make the ecosystem work.”

Logging continues on a large scale, but Schleifenbaum has reversed the high-grade approach. Rather than the wholesale clearing of stands, foresters tag mature and low-quality trees for cutting. Typically, half of the trees are processed into lumber and the rest are used for pulp or firewood. “Peter doesn’t hide the fact that logging is going on,” says Vance. “Other companies try to hide what they’re doing, but he is not ashamed because he is doing great forestry. It’s the best forestry we know possible.” After years of sustainable management, the region that comprises Haliburton Forest looks much like it did in the 1860s, long before it was exploited for commercial logging.

For seven years, students have benefited from the facilities, field camps and the artful science of forestry at Haliburton Forest. Now a bequest from retired Ohio engineer Carl Brown and his wife, Susi, guarantees that the collaboration between Schleifenbaum’s one-of-a-kind operation and the U of T Faculty of Forestry will continue for generations to come. Brown, a lifelong naturalist and a regular visitor to the reserve, already provides $15,000 U.S. in research money for graduate students each year. A substantial portion of his estate will also be directed to the Haliburton Forest via the Faculty of Forestry and will underwrite research costs, sponsor academic conferences and workshops, and pay for the establishment of permanent field stations in the forest. “Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the spread of so-called civilization – clearcuts on a mountainside and the destruction of the natural world,” says the 81-year-old Brown. “I think the world of Haliburton Forest; it sets an example for all forestry operations and will be internationally renowned one day.”

For student Christine Vance, the opportunity to study at Haliburton Forest has opened her eyes to the future of sustainable forestry. These are ideas that she and her peers from the U of T Faculty of Forestry can put to use at home or in forests around the world. “We can always be asking: ‘Is there another or better way of doing this?'” she says. “Now we are working with a world leader for change right in our own backyard.”

Laurel Aziz is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ontario

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