Battle scarred, but most definitely not battle weary, meet four of Ontario Nature’s eco-heroes

 

THE TRAILBLAZER

Bruce Falls, Toronto
President, Ontario Nature, 1962-64
Ontario Nature director, 1946-74

 

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, was published and the modern environmental movement was born. That also happened to be the year, 1962, that Bruce Falls became president of Ontario Nature, then called the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.

Falls joined the board of the organization in 1946 when he was still a biology student at the University of Toronto. Sixteen years later, “a bunch of young guys” eager to shake things up a bit put his name forward, and he found himself leading Ontario Nature despite having never sat on the board’s executive committee. Falls, a 38-year-old zoology professor at the time, brought about the change people had been hungry for: landmark campaigns and initiatives that fundamentally reshaped not just the organization, but conservation in Ontario and throughout Canada.

Falls immediately focused organizational attention on land acquisition and nature reserves. “One of our members, Malcolm Kirk, came to me and the board with an option to buy a chunk of land on Dorcas Bay on the Bruce Peninsula,” Falls recalls. “It was a really good piece of land, a couple of hundred acres, an area with lots of orchids, that was threatened by cottage development.”

He and the board wasted no time and, working with the organization’s managing director David Webster, launched “the battle of the bulldozer.” It was Ontario Nature’s first property acquisition fundraising campaign. “The idea was if we didn’t grab this property, it was going to go to development,” Falls explains. “The membership really rose to the occasion. We got the money faster than we thought we would and bought the property.” Although the land was later sold to Parks Canada and is now a piece of the much larger Bruce Peninsula National Park, its acquisition started a reserve program at Ontario Nature that now includes 22 properties, protecting 2,400 hectares of habitat, much of it containing rare and unusual plant and animal communities. “I think we did a good thing in that,” says Falls.

Ontario Nature’s first nature reserve also led to Falls’s second big achievement – the creation of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). Before becoming president of Ontario Nature, Falls had chaired a board committee that was researching how to create a separate organization mainly to acquire land. “It’s funny to think now,” he says, “but the board was nervous about getting a land empire that they couldn’t afford and couldn’t do anything about.”

In preparation, Falls paid a visit to the Nature Conservancy in England while doing his postdoctoral research. Later, the committee also met with Richard Pough, founder of The Nature Conservancy in the United States. When Falls was elected president he gave up the committee chair, but with the help of another board member, lawyer Aird Lewis, the committee proposed the creation of NCC. “We convinced the board it was a good idea, we went to the feds and got it chartered and the Nature Conservancy of Canada was born in the fall of 1962,” says Falls, who later served as NCC’s chair, from 1971 to 1974. To date, NCC has helped protect one million hectares of property.

The third hallmark of Falls’s presidency relates to the Bruce Trail Association, to which he lent a helping hand. At that time, the association was just a small group of people who wanted to develop a trail running from Niagara Falls to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula and had applied for a government grant that would be used to plan the best route and work with local landowners. “Because we had staff and a charter, we could accept grants,” Falls says. “So we helped them by accepting a grant on their behalf and hiring a man to survey the situation.” That man turned out to be real estate specialist Phil Gosling, who wound up working under Falls as the Bruce Trail Association’s first trail director and is now recognized as one of the trail’s founders. “I can’t say we went out and did a big campaign for them,” says Falls, “but that money is what got them off the ground. So we really did them an important favour.”

All of which means Falls, in his 89th year, has several 2012 anniversaries to celebrate. Mostly importantly, he and his wife will mark 60 years of marriage. But along with that come golden anniversary celebrations for the Bruce Trail Association in the spring and the NCC in November. “Everything’s 50,” Falls says with a laugh, “because we started them all in the same year.”

 

LESSONS IN CONSERVATION

Audrey E. Wilson, Cobourg
Member, Ontario Nature, 1954-2012
Ontario Nature Achievement Award, 2008

 

“ANYTHING NATURE-WISE, that’s kind of been my life I guess.”

Audrey Wilson has just recapped the highlights of her life’s work while trying to steer clear of painters redoing walls of her house in Cobourg. Given her involvement in outdoor education, nature studies and conservation, the last place one would picture Wilson is indoors. Instead, picture her in the field.

There are lots of locations to choose from: the 40-hectare Laurie Lawson Outdoor Education Centre outside Cobourg where she introduced, and for 22 years, taught outdoor education to 3,000 students a year from 27 Northumberland County schools; the new boardwalk at Presqu’ile Provincial Park, for which she helped lead the fundraising; the Grafton-area farm where she grew up or Ontario Nature’s Camp Billie Bear near Huntsville, where she got her first taste of being a field naturalist in the 1950s, having won a prize to attend after graduating from high school. “The camp really moulded me for what my life’s work turned out to be,” says Wilson. “I went back five or six times.”

Thanks to her parents, Wilson was already a keen birder and butterfly collector, but the camp included classes on such topics as botany and entomology. “It was intensive. The camp really honed your naturalist skills.” Her efforts were recognized a few years later, when the county school board asked her to implement an outdoor pilot project at a Cobourg school, using nearby Rotary Park. Laurie Lawson, who was the president of the local Rotary Club, took a keen interest, and after Wilson said the park location wasn’t a long- term option, offered the use of the 40-hectare property just outside of Cobourg (which he then owned) that is the Laurie Lawson Outdoor Education Centre today. A year later, the entire county started sending students Wilson’s way.

Wilson met many memorable students and instructors over the years, but one who still comes to mind as an example of how important outdoor education can be for children was a big boy in Grade 4 or 5 who had a reading disability and was always fighting in class. “He got hooked on the outdoor centre,” says Wilson, and was so inspired he learned to read on his own. “He called me about 10 years ago. He’d gotten into hothouse horticulture and had been hired to ‘green’ areas of China around the Great Wall.”

Over the years, budget cuts in Ontario have eliminated many outdoor education programs, which first took off in the 1970s. Wilson is proud to say that the Lawson Centre and two other outdoor education facilities in the county remain open and active more than 20 years after her retirement. Inexpensive programs closely tied to the core curriculum are the key, she explains: “We always worked hard to match the curriculum.”

Wilson has also done her part since she left teaching. As a member of the Willow Beach Field Naturalists, she was a founding director of the spinoff Northumberland Land Trust, which acquired the Laurie Lawson Centre as its first property. “The condition under which we received it was that it always be used for outdoor ed and native plantings.”

In 2008, Wilson received the Ontario Nature Achievement Award. The award recognized not only her outdoor education work, but also her work with monarch butterflies – she was a long-time volunteer in the tagging program run by University of Toronto zoologist Fred Urquhart, who eventually located the migrating monarch’s wintering grounds in Mexico – and for her book, Studying Birds, which has been included in the school curriculum for at least 15 years. The tagging work clearly still stands out. “I tagged thousands of butterflies from the 1950s to the seventies,” says Wilson. “It was a popular program. You were on the leading edge of something scientific.” Studying nature, pushing the boundaries – in many ways these exemplify all her life’s work.

 

ABOUT A BOG

Frank Pope, Nepean
President, Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC), 1984-85, 1992-95
OFNC, council member, 1979-2011; member, 1967-2012
Member, Ontario Nature, late 1950s-2012

 

MIDWAY BETWEEN THE Ottawa Valley and Montreal lie 4,200 hectares of rare, provincially significant peat wetlands, undivided for the most part by roads or property boundaries, and large enough to be seen from space. A fragment of habitat more typically found in the boreal region, Alfred Bog supports rare and endangered plants and animals. The bog looms equally large among Ontario conservation success stories and is the culmination of a 20-plus-year battle that begins and ends – although he’ll say otherwise – with Frank Pope.

Pope, now retired from Statistics Canada, joined the OFNC in 1967 and later served on its conservation commit- tee, and was a senior member of the OFNC council in 1981 when naturalists from the Vankleek Hill Nature Society came looking for help. Hardy Farms had bought about a third of the bog and planned to drain it and turn it into a vegetable farm. Its application to rezone the land for agriculture was before the township. “The local natural- ists objected,” says Pope. “To really fight the rezoning, they felt that they weren’t strong enough by themselves, so they asked the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club to help, and we signed on.”

Pope’s involvement increased when he became OFNC president in 1984. “I had to carry the ball,” he recounts. By that time, the bog rezoning had been approved and an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) had been defeated. Undeterred, Pope teamed up with Charles Sauriol of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, convening a meeting in Ottawa at which the “Save the Bog” committee was formed, with Pope as chair. Their strategy played to NCC’s strength: raising public awareness and money to buy and conserve as much of the bog as possible.

By 1987, Pope’s committee had acquired a few hundred hectares of the bog, when fate intervened. Hardy Farms put its 1,538-hectare bog property on the market, having never developed it after all. A year later, NCC led the purchase of the bog for $850,000, leveraging local club funds and provincial and federal matching support. “I ran a fundraising campaign with our local club,” recalls Pope. “I think we put $180,000 into it over a number of years.”

Progress in acquiring other portions of the bog continued in fits and starts. In the mid-nineties, the newly combined counties of Prescott and Russell, where the bog is located, began work on an official plan. “We lobbied the Ministry of Natural Resources to officially zone the Alfred Bog as a wetland and determine the boundaries,” Pope recalls. That recognition and those boundaries were proposed for the plan, but OMB appeals and hearings delayed their adoption for years.

The tide did not turn until 2001, when another 1,295-hectare piece of the bog went up for sale. Once again, NCC led the purchase, this time for about $2.5 million. By the time the OFNC awarded Pope its Conservation Award for Members in 2006, the club was able to declare that the bog was fully secured; all appeals were dropped, its boundaries were set in the official plan and Ontario Parks was managing the entire property as a nature reserve.

Looking back, Pope credits two things for the committee’s success: support from county officials, NCC, local groups and the Ministry of Natural Resources, and old-fashioned grit and determination. “It was really kind of a tough fight,” he says. “But longevity is about hanging in there. Our committee was always there.”

 

A FIGHTING NATURALIST

Lorne Almack, Claremont
President, Ontario Nature, 1980-81
Member, Ontario Nature, 1950-2012
Ontario Nature Achievement Award, 2002

 

ON MARCH 2, 1972, Lorne Almack’s life changed forever and a movement, now in its 40th year, to protect farmland and conserve natural areas on the urban fringe of the City of Toronto began.

On that day, Almack, along with thousands of residents in a 7,530-hectare area of farms and villages northeast of Toronto, received a letter from the federal government saying that a portion of their property was to be expropriated to build a second major airport – the Pickering airport – for Toronto.

“That night we convened a meeting of local people, elected a chairman and started to organize,” says Almack, who lived then, as now, on lot 18, Concession 8, in Claremont. “People or Planes” was born and Almack, who was already an ardent naturalist, became a self-described “radical environmentalist.”

“The airport didn’t make any sense,” says Almack, an engineer by profession, who chaired the new group’s technical committee. “One, it wasn’t needed. The forecasts were ludicrous. And even if it was, it shouldn’t be built on class 1 farmland.”

In 1975, Ontario premier Bill Davis succumbed to local pressure and reneged on a deal with Ottawa to help develop the airport’s infrastructure. Unfortunately, the story does not end there. To this day, Transport Canada owns the land. On the plus side, this means the area remains undeveloped, unlike the surrounding countryside, where significant urbanization has occurred. On the other hand, the property’s future remains up in the air, numerous buildings are in a sad state of decay ,natural areas have received little care or protection, and for decades the soil and landscape have been unmanaged and potentially degraded due to short-term cash-cropping and monoculture.

In all the years since he helped stop the airport, Almack has been active – through his involvement with Ontario Nature as a board member and president, and in successor groups to People or Planes, such as the Green Door Alliance and, most recently, Green Durham – in the fight to have the farmland preserved and the area’s natural features protected and enhanced. His own 34-hectare property, which was eventually dropped from the expropriation and where he has planted 80,000 trees, is now protected by a conservation easement, held by Ontario Nature. In 2002, he received the organization’s Achievement Award in recognition of his work. But he remains active, spearheading a proposal to get the property “out of the hands of Transport Canada,” arguing that the government should transfer responsibility for it to Parks Canada. “If we can get it there,” explains Almack, “then we can start lobbying for a land trust arrangement.”

Through a land trust, a single management entity could govern the entire property, conserving farmland and the natural heritage of the area. “Our goal is to establish corridors and linkages from the Oak Ridges Moraine to the waterfront of Lake Ontario, with an emphasis on farming. It is the finest piece of farmland in Canada east of Toronto,” Almack says. “The trust should have the power to gradually sell the land in farm blocks and create a feeling of private stewardship with conservation easements registered on title so it can never be developed.”

Almack published the latest version of his group’s proposal this past January, in response to a recent study by the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, which recommended that Transport Canada keep all the land for potential construction of an airport as far into the future as 2037. Green Durham’s trust proposal doesn’t preclude construction of an airport, but says that its size should be limited to no more than 2,225 hectares of the property. Almack figures it will take 25 years to restore the farms and fields and clean up, replant and fortify damaged or neglected natural areas. “You’ve got to do it sensibly, gradually,” he says.

Almack probably didn’t think he’d still be fighting this battle 40 years after it began. “We’re getting awful old, you know,” he notes with a laugh. At the same time, he remains hopeful for the future. “Today, young people are red hot to conserve the land,” he says.

This article was original published in ON Nature magazine in Summer 2012

Photography courtesy of Evan Dion (images 1, 2, 4) and Ryan Parent