ECOFORESTRY INSTITUTE SOCIETY
EIS, TLC AND WILDWOOD – A UNIQUE PARTNERSHIP
In the Beginning…
The Ecoforestry Institute Society is a charitable non-profit society comprised of ecoforestry and associated professionals. They freely volunteer their expertise, time, money and passion to steward Wildwood in a sustainable manner and to further the science and practice of ecoforestry in general. They continue to honour the principles and legacy of Merv Wilkinson, who first practiced ecoforestry at Wildwood.
EIS springs from a proud heritage of well-known ecoforesters and environmentalists. Established in 1995, and chaired by Ray Travers (registered professional forester), original directors included Dr. Alan Drengson (UVic philosophy professor), Dr. Duncan Taylor (UVic environmental studies professor), Dr. Nancy Turner (UVic environmental studies professor and ethnobotanist), Robert Nixon (forester and editor of Forest Talk, which EIS took over as the International Journal of Ecoforestry) and Sharon Chow (Sierra Club staff). Merv Wilkinson himself was an EIS member and director at times. Successive chairs included Peter Jungwirth (ecoforester), Chris Walther (ecoforester) and Roger Burgess (retired engineer). Peter Jungwirth is the current chair, while Barry Gates (ecoforester) serves as vice chair.
Many EIS members have come to be recognized as the vanguard and later, as primary movers and shakers in the ecoforestry movement. Their combined work has had a profound effect as ecoforestry has evolved and taken shape in the years since.
Dr. Alan Drengson and Dr. Duncan Taylor published an edited volume in 2008 on ecoforestry: Wild Foresting: Practicing Nature’s Wisdom. Edited by A. Drengson and D. M. Taylor. Island Press, Washington, DC.
Ecoforestry is all about conducting forest management in a way that respects the natural life cycle of the forest type, the inherent value of the services the forest provides including air purification and water filtration, and learning about the web of life it embodies. It is also about how to earn an income from the forest without negatively impacting its ecological integrity and depleting its health.
Merv’s Ecoforestry Practices
EIS became interested in the work of Merv Wilkinson, who was, by then, well-recognized for his ecologically-based forestry at Wildwood. A long standing relationship ensued as EIS and Merv shared their knowledge and expertise to manage and learn from Wildwood.
Merv managed Wildwood through an approximate five-year harvest selective logging plan, meaning he would harvest once every five years, rather than every year, to reduce the impact on the forest. Trees to be harvested were those selected on the basis of the soil, light, and density needs of the forest. At the time of harvest, Merv also considered the market log prices by species, ensuring he was maximizing the value of the cut. The primary drivers were to ensure the overall health, diversity, resilience and sustainability of the forest.
Merv learned to leave logs and woody debris to decompose on the forest floor, as the logs offered habitat to forest creatures and their decomposition added nutrients to the forest floor. He encouraged birds and other wildlife by leaving snags as “hotels” for cavity nesters, and areas of brush as habitat. Merv never used chemical pesticides at Wildwood; the birds that he encouraged, and the balance he maintained in his forest ecosystems, were his main form of pest control.
He retained some of the large prime trees specifically to serve as sources of seed and always depended on natural regeneration, rather than on growing and planting out tree seedlings plantation-style. He also diversified the products he derived from his forest, and had lumber milled on site that was often used in the local community. He cut Christmas trees in multi-year cycles, and also cut wood fence posts, firewood and other specialty goods.
Ensuring Merv’s Legacy
As Merv aged, he became concerned for the well-being and future of his beloved forest. Having previously given half of Wildwood to his son, who sold it, Merv searched for a way to keep the forest in public hands and accessible to the public in perpetuity. He started looking at land trusts in 1991, and in 2000, entered into a partnership with EIS and The Land Conservancy (TLC).
In 2000, TLC, assisted by EIS, raised $1.01 million in public donations (including a $150,000 donation from Merv from his 25% share of Wildwood) to acquire Wildwood and secure it as a property in trust to TLC. Many EIS members and directors donated to protect Wildwood, both then and later. EIS itself donated over $20,000 to have TLC protect Wildwood forever.
Merv and his third wife Anne were given a life estate in the house, meaning they could stay as long as they lived. They also received a mortgage for the other $100,000 value in Merv’s 25% share of the property. The mortgage was forgiveable upon both their deaths, but was designed to give them some income and financial security.
Merv’s second wife, Grace Richard, who was married to Merv for over 30 years, owned a 75% share of the property and also worked hard over many years to protect Wildwood. Grace needed the money as her retirement fund, but felt the appraisal and price of $1.01 million were below market value. Nonetheless, Grace accepted 75% of that because she also wanted to see Wildwood preserved in perpetuity. Grace is still hoping to see that.
The EIS/TLC Partnership
TLC vowed to hold the forest in perpetuity, and to place a covenant on the property to protect it in perpetuity. The covenant was never developed.
In 2001, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between TLC and EIS, as requested by Merv as a condition of transfer. It appointed a forest management board with two seats for EIS and one for TLC. Jay Rastogi, the onsite manager for TLC, was TLC’s representative on the forest management board for Wildwood until he was let go along with many other TLC staff in 2011.
Throughout the years, Wildwood has hosted thousands of visitors through EIS programs, including ecoforesters from around the world, school children who experience the ant hills first hand, and hundreds of university students, as well as the interested general public. The Forest Ecology and Stewardship workshop is the most frequently requested workshop. Other popular events include edible plant identification and mushroom workshops, along with First Nations’ cedar bark harvesting and demonstrations of traditional pit cooking.
In 2004 EIS made an application to the Softwood Industry Community Economic Adjustment Initiative for funding to complete the forest management plan, so that EIS could resume Merv Wilkinson’s harvesting cycle with a responsible plan in place. However, they were not awarded the funding.
Trouble in the Woods
By 2008, Merv’s health began to deteriorate. He continued to reside in the house under the life estate, but he could no longer walk his beloved forest. His daughter Tisha (an oil and gas industry consultant) and her husband Stan began to take a more active role in Merv’s life and in Wildwood. EIS members and the TLC-appointed forest manager, Jay Rastogi, began to feel unwelcome on the property. In 2009, Merv gave Tisha a power of attorney to manage his financial affairs. It was an enduring power of attorney that would continue in effect during any mental infirmity.
Under the auspices of the TLC, EIS continued to manage Wildwood. Still determined to develop a responsible ecoforestry management plan to ensure the sustainability of both timber and non-timber related values (habitat diversity, soil, water), EIS commissioned a detailed study of the site in 2006 and 2007. TLC publicly supported the development of the plan, praising the plan as the “first comprehensive effort to document, quantify and structure the processes and strategies that Merv pioneered.” The Ecoforestry Management Plan was approved by TLC in 2010.
In October 2009, TLC and EIS planned a small harvest at Wildwood, under the direction of TLC’s onsite manager, Jay Rastogi. The harvest was cut short due to Tisha and her husband Stan’s objections. Later, threats were made against the life of Mr. Rastogi. TLC agreed to stop the harvest until a resolution could be reached. As a result of that incident, Tisha’s husband Stan was charged and given a restraining order by the provincial criminal court to have no contact with Mr. Rastogi.
EIS stopped the harvest to consult with TLC, but TLC never allowed EIS to resume it.
In 2009, Tisha and Mark Randen (a sawyer who worked with Merv previously) drove Merv (at 95, too frail to walk) around the property in a truck for the purpose of designating trees for a planned harvest. The trees selected were primarily old-growth veteran, dominant trees. The EIS Chair at the time, Chris Walther (RPF and eco-forester) estimated that if such a cut were made on Merv’s five-year cutting cycle, there would be no old-growth trees left on Wildwood in approximately 40 years. In his words, “It would amount to high grading and industrial old growth liquidation.”
EIS also found it alarming that trees were marked for harvest without any guiding document such as a management plan.
In 2010, Tisha, Mark Randen, and Merv issued a “Repurchase proposal” and “Report Card.” The latter chastised TLC and EIS for the lack of a tree cut and, among other charges, claimed that the forest was deteriorating due to disease, pests, soil depletion due to density of the stand and imbalance between growth potential and the density of the stand. Chris Walther, who lived and worked with Merv for two months in 2008, critiqued the Report Card. His main criticism was that it “confused logging with forestry. The EIS had done very little logging in Wildwood, but had done significant forestry work including inventory for timber and coarse woody debris, forest cover mapping, productivity analysis, draft management plan etc.” This was work more in keeping with ecoforestry practices and principles.
Tisha, who had Merv’s power of attorney at that time, lobbied to buy back the property, citing dissatisfaction with the lack of harvest. TLC stated publicly and clearly that there was no possibility of selling Wildwood back to them, as the property had been bought with public donations and tax receipts had been issued. This document was removed from TLC’s website in May 2015.
TLC’s public statement read:
Our Executive Director and our Board Chair met directly with Merv’s daughter and son-in-law, as well as Merv, and explained to them that because the property was purchased with donated funds, and because there were tax receipts and tax benefits involved, we do not have the legal ability to sell the property to private interests. But, when we take a property under our care, we do have the ethical and moral responsibility to protect that property in perpetuity, to not expose it to undue risk, and to manage it to the best of our abilities according to the expectations of our partners, members and donors.
We have to say that to sell the property (even to Merv’s family) would be a breach of the commitment we made to Merv and Anne and a breach of our responsibility. At 96 and quite frail, Merv himself simply would not be taking care of Wildwood. Its management and its future would pass to others who are not accountable to anyone, and who cannot guarantee the protection of the site or of Merv’s legacy in perpetuity.
In early 2011, Lorraine Bell stepped up and paid off the mortgage on Wildwood, for approximately $216,000, on the strict condition that TLC protect Wildwood forever, which TLC agreed to do. Pursuant to that, in February 2011, the TLC Board declared Wildwood an inalienable property, meaning it cannot be sold unless the land trust is in bankruptcy and then only to a suitable and like-minded non-profit organization.
Merv passed away in 2011. EIS resumed its full management responsibilities in partnership with TLC.
Tisha and her husband Stan had control of Merv’s house for three months after Merv died. TLC’s October 2011 Board minutes state: “Wildwood -Current occupants have been given until the end of the month to vacate the property. -Briony Penn expressed concern for Jay Rastogi’s safety as the restraining order is up this year”.
In 2013, EIS proposed a harvest, but TLC refused, saying that they were in financial difficulties by then and entering the CCAA process, and that harvesting would reduce the sale value of Wildwood.
It seems that in 2014, Tisha, along with Mark Randen, renewed the repurchase proposal TLC had so emphatically rejected in 2010. TLC had initially committed to a private sale for $860,000, but withdrew due to concerns raised by EIS and Wildwood supporters. TLC has now committed to a trust, the terms and price of which remain undisclosed.
EIS Commitment to Wildwood Now and Forever
Although EIS was not responsible for maintaining the house under the original MOU with TLC, this has been included in a separate agreement as TLC no longer has the staff or resources to maintain it. EIS and Friends of Wildwood volunteers have donated thousands of hours and dollars to fixing the house and maintaining the property, including removing invasive species, and in the house, installing a new roof, deck, floors, water system, a renovated bathroom, along with assorted painting, and dry walling.
EIS remains steadfast in its commitment to protect public donations and the intent of those donations by keeping Wildwood accessible and in the public domain.
Once EIS has secured Wildwood’s long-term future in a charitable purpose trust or other arrangement, EIS will update the forest management plan and public education about ecoforestry and Merv’s legacy.
Many concerned people have worked with EIS over the last year to protect Wildwood and once that work is done, EIS looks forward to working with them to make Wildwood all that Merv envisioned.
Thanks to generous benefactors, EIS has raised $600,000 to contribute to TLC’s significant debt. TLC has yet to accept that offer.