When Gene Connell thinks about his retirement, the movie We Bought a Zoo comes to mind. That’s not exactly what he did, although a surprising number of animals — ranging from coyotes to wild mink — now rely on the retired actuary for support. “When people ask me what I’m up to,” says Connell, “I usually respond with, ‘We bought a forest!’”
The project started out as a simple idea. After retiring as chief actuary and chief risk officer from Erie Insurance in Erie, Pennsylvania, Connell was looking for an alternative investment. “The stock market is volatile,” he points out, “and savings accounts aren’t paying any interest.” Connell and his wife, Anne, had once owned land in New Hampshire. They began thinking about moving back to the state and investing in property there.
The Connells’ daughter, Jennifer, 26, had a different idea, combined with a millennial’s dedication to the internet. Hoping to keep her parents in the area, she began scouring posts on Craigslist. One day, she spotted an ad for an 80-acre parcel of land only 10 miles away from the Connells’ home. The land was a forest. Its cherry, oak and maple trees had been logged to build furniture, and the logging had left it in rough shape. Still, Gene Connell saw its investment potential. In August 2016, he bought his forest. Located seven miles south of Lake Erie, the property was large enough that it took him nearly three hours to hike all the way around its borders.
Connell’s plans started to shift, however, after he called the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry asking for advice. Forester Tim Ackerman made one request. “He says, ‘Don’t touch anything until I come out and take a look around,’” recalls Connell. When Ackerman arrived to walk through the woods, Connell got his first lesson in forest ecology — and his first clue that he was getting into more than he realized.
When Connell told the forester of his plans to remove the dead branches lying on the ground, part of the detritus left behind by the loggers, Ackerman pointed out something Connell hadn’t noticed. In the shelter of the decaying branches, tiny saplings were poking out of the ground. “If you pull these tree branches out,” Ackerman said, “the deer will have easy access to all these saplings. And they’ll eat them all.” Connell’s response? “Fascinating!”
The more state officials saw of the forest, the more excited they got about its potential. “They’re like, ‘Holy mackerel, you’ve got a pond! You’ve got streams! You’ve got deer!’” Ackerman pointed out places where wild turkeys had clawed up the bare dirt to take a dust bath. Soon Pennsylvania Game Commission officer John Keller visited the property. The experts pointed out the tracks of wild mink, the weasel-like animal with a luxurious brown coat that hunts in the state’s ponds and streams, as well as coyote prints. “This is what Pennsylvania is supposed to look like,” the officials told Connell.
Gradually, Connell came up with a new goal: not just to own the land, but to restore its ecosystem. “We would like the property to be a showcase of Pennsylvania forest,” he says. “We want to have a timber-producing forest, so that we can cut cherry and oak, maybe walnut. But [we want to] do it in a way that is sustainable, forever.”
Actuary vs. Alien Invaders
Connell began reading books and learning about habitat restoration. “A lot of people assume … the trees grow on their own, right? Well, without intervention, because this was logged, it would not restore itself,” he says. The first major problem, Connell learned, was invasive plant species. When the forest was logged, plants that are not native to the area moved into the clearings and began to grow. Because local wildlife, including everything from butterflies to birds to deer, isn’t adapted to feed on those species, the plants grow unchecked and can soon take over the woods. “The point of owning a forest is completely [lost],” Connell explains. “You have no wildlife and no native trees.”
Non-native species are notoriously difficult to eradicate, but Connell was amazed to find that help was available. In exchange for allowing hunting on the land for ten years, state officials are applying for a grant to have contractors remove the invasive plants — a process that usually costs tens of thousands of dollars.
Erosion is a problem Connell is tackling himself. “They bulldozed roads so they could haul the trees out,” he explains. “Those roads are eroding with rain and snow, and the silt is ending up in the streams.” To stabilize the roads, Connell is using a method used during colonial times: picking up dead branches and laying them over the dirt to create a bumpy surface, a process known as corduroying. Connell even has a new assistant: a 1947 Ford tractor he bought on Craigslist. Because the forest has grown into a family project, his human helpers now include his son, Christopher, along with his wife and daughter. Their next project, scheduled for the spring, will be planting 500 oak, maple and pine seedlings grown at Penn State, and provided for free by the state.
Spring may bring another kind of baby boom as well. A visiting game commissioner noticed that Connell’s pond is quiet and remote, far from any houses or people — a perfect home for one of the state’s most beautiful birds. “They said wood ducks really love to find a pond where they will not be disturbed by people,” says Connell. Hoping to boost the bird population, officials installed several duck boxes, which look like birdhouses on stilts, near the water’s edge.
The boxes allow the ducks to lay their eggs in a place that’s safe from predators. In the fall, game commissioners will return to look for evidence of nesting to find out whether the effort has been successful.
Throughout the whole process, Connell says, his favorite thing has been “the almost continual learning. The bottom line is that the forest … is a mental and physical challenge. Which is really kind of cool.” Other rewards are more tangible. Recently, Connell visited the woods to retrieve photos from the motion-controlled wildlife cameras. Though the cameras have captured a variety of deer selfies, he’s hoping for a photo of a wild turkey, or the red fox a friend saw on the property that he says was the largest he’d ever spotted.
“It was later in the evening,” Connell says, “just starting to turn dark, and the owls started hooting. It was really neat. I just wanted to sit there and listen.”
Laurie McClellan is a freelance writer and photographer living in Arlington, Virginia. She is on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches in the M.A. in Science Writing program.