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A Forest Reborn – and the Business of Storytelling

Two weeks ago, Pam and I got back from a woodland vacation in Ontario, Canada. While we were there, we learned the story of the privately owned forest we were staying in, the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve.

Starting in the 1870s, lumber companies clear-cut the easily accessible white pine stands in the area. Destructive tree harvesting continued until the 1960s, when the forest was so weakened that it had lost much of its ability to regenerate. The rugged land was unsuited for agriculture, so some of the beautiful lake shores were sold to developers, leaving 70,000 acres of dubious commercial value.

Peter Schleifenbaum listens to a question

Peter Schleifenbaum listens to a question

Sound like a familiar eco-tragedy? Here’s where the story takes a surprising turn.

In 1963, a German businessman bought the abused forest land. Over the next years, he was forced to sell off more lakefront to pay taxes on the property. But in 1987, his son, Peter Schleifenbaum, graduated with a doctorate in forestry – and moved from Germany to Haliburton Forest to try to save the forest.

Support the work that supports the forest?

How do you get enough income to manage a forest that has been stripped of nearly all saleable trees? How do you raise money to care for a natural environment without harming the environment in the process?

Schleifenbaum took this problem as his life’s work. His first attempts were fairly conventional: make the forest available for recreation, including fishing, hunting, and snowmobiling.

Pam and Doug on the canopy walkway

Pam and Doug on the canopy walkway

But what would make Haliburton Forest stand out? What could make an experience there unlike any other, and therefore valuable enough to command the kind of admission prices that would be needed to finance 70,000 acres of forest restoration?

One of his projects was the world’s longest canopy walkway through a remote stand of old-growth white pine. Another was a meditative tour below the surface of a mountain lake – in a one-of-a-kind tourist submarine. Still another was a 15-acre Wolf Park, containing a resident, non-tame pack of timber wolves, and a Wolf Center featuring a one-way-mirror viewing-room from which to observe the wolves.

Wolf seen from the viewing room into the Wolf Park

Wolf seen from the viewing room into the Wolf Park

Still other projects are an astronomical observatory (at the right times of the year, the Northern Lights are visible there), ElderHostels, mountain bike trails, and sled-dogging.

Peter has also forged relationships with forest researchers at the University of Toronto. At this point, Haliburton Forest is eagerly sought after as a research site, because so much baseline data has already been gathered there.

The Problem of the Sawmill

One of the problems any forest faces is that lumber is sold to sawmills. Sawmills, in turn, demand the highest grade, healthy trees, which are actually essential to the forest. So Peter built his own sawmill, optimized for processing low-grade trees – which are the trees that the forest needs removed.

One of the normally unsaleable trees is eastern hemlock, in spite of its resistance to decay and insects. To create a market for those trees, Peter began Eco-Log Building Concepts, using eastern hemlock logs that are felled only when they come due for harvesting and are skidded by horse to avoid truck-damage to the forest.

In this way, Peter says, the forest no longer works for the sawmill; the sawmill works for the forest.

What Storytellers Can Learn from Haliburton Forest

As storytellers, we have problems similar to Peter Schleifenbaum’s:

  • How can we make enough money to support our art?
  • How can we “monetize” our art without harming it?
  • How can we make our storytelling stand out in a forest of storytellers?
  • How can we survive when the book and record publishers, the concert promoters, and all the rest have their own agendas?

From Peter’s story, therefore, we can learn lessons to help us support our art and our selves:

1. Take an active approach to solving the problem of earning a living, no matter how unfair or hopeless your situation seems at first.

2. Apply as much creativity to earning a living as you do to your art – and continue to apply it for decades. Search continuously for new ways to use your assets/skills.

Looking down from the canopy platform

Looking down from the canopy platform

3. Try things that no one else is doing; learn from others, but be willing to go beyond them.

4. Create multiple streams of income. Don’t rely exclusively on any one market, product, or approach.

5. Accept that failures are a part of the process. (Peter’s submarine has been in dry-dock for two years, due to disputes with local regulators. I heard some people complain that a submarine was a crazy idea, but Peter seems to understand that, in order to find lots of things that work, you need to try some that don’t pan out.)

6. If you are not well served by those who earn money from your efforts (like the sawmill owners), create alternatives that work for you.

7. Learn enough about business to succeed, but always work in service to your passion.

What about you? What lessons do you draw from Peter’s story? What ideas does it give you about your storytelling work?


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