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Webinar explores importance of conservation reserve on County’s South Shore

Jay-Dee Purdie photo

By Sharon Harrison
With the announcement earlier this fall that the County’s South Shore could be designated as a conservation reserve, the South Shore Joint Initiative (SSJI) received many enquiries asking, ‘What exactly is a conservation reserve?’ It prompted the SSJI volunteers to get answers, and alleviate confusion.

Its first of a new webinar series saw 54 participants, where people learned not only what a conservation reserve is, but also what it’s not, and how it differs to a conservation area and a nature reserve.

“On Sept. 10, the provincial government announced at the beach at Point Petre that the Ostrander Point Crown Land and the Point Petre Wildlife Area were about to be designated, hopefully to become conservation reserves,” stated John Hirsch, SSJI president.

The webinar included a brief introduction by Hirsch on SSJI’s progress over the last year and the main presentation by Audrey Heagy, community council coordinator at the St. Williams Conservation Reserve in southwestern Ontario. A question and answer session followed.

The South Shore Joint Initiative is a group of partners and supporters in conservation, all focused on the County’s South Shore, an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.

Hirsch noted the extent of the protection and conservation of the South Shore extends to both the land area and the waters surrounding.

He noted 41 species at risk have been identified in the South Shore area.

“The two pieces of land on either side of the Ostrander Point Crown Land Block are owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), these are recent acquisitions, and the Hudgin Rose Nature Reserve and the MapleCross Coastline Reserve,” stated Hirsch. “There is another property owned by the Hastings Prince Edward Land Trust, and just outside the IBA is NCCs latest acquisition, the Bass Family Nature Reserve.”

The presentation’s focus on the two pieces of land on the Ostrander Point Crown Land Block and Point Petre Wildlife Area (shown as orange blocks on the accompanying map) which Hirsch noted the province is moving to turn into a conservation reserve.

The St. Williams Conservation Reserve is located in southwestern Ontario, north of Lake Erie near Long Point. It is about a two hour drive from Toronto, near Port Dover in Norfolk County, and draws users from a wide area for day trips.

Hirsch noted the St. Williams Conservation Reserve was established in 2004. He also noted that all conservation reserves are operated under the auspices of Parks Ontario.

“Our understanding is we would come under the stewardship of Sandbanks Provincial Park, so the superintendent of Sandbanks would be the official responsible for our conservation reserve,” Hirsch said. “They are pretty busy on any given day just managing Sandbanks, never mind interfering in what might happen on the South Shore.

“We think it may serve as a model for our South Shore Conservation Reserve and Audrey is going to provide insights into developing a management plan for the conservation reserve to be a model for us,” he said.

Hirsch noted the St. Williams Community Council works with the conservation reserve management plan and the public, builds relationships with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), and others

Audrey Heagy’s high-level presentation shared information about the conservation reserve at St. Williams, including its history and management, noting differences between St. Williams and the South Shore.

She noted that while Ontario Parks will be leading the development of the management plan, including outreach and public consultations as part of the process, and are best able to answer questions specific to the South Shore Conservation Reserve, her presentation provided an idea of what a conservation reserve is and how it might apply in Prince Edward County.

Heagy noted there are two different tracts of land within the St. Williams Conservation Reserve area: the Nursery Tract and the Turkey Point Tract. She added that it is the only conservation reserve in Ontario that consists of two separate parts that fall under one conservation reserve (something in common to the South Shore).

“Landscape-wise, we are in an agricultural area, this is the big asparagus and tobacco growing area of Ontario and Canada, other crops as well as corn and beans,” says Heagy.

She says the area is about 25 per cent forest cover with deciduous woods and plantation areas.

The area includes coastal wetlands of Turkey Point, and the biggest freshwater sand spit in the world at Long Point. Nearby Turkey Point Provincial Park is a big forested tract, as well as Backus Woods, which is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The total size of the conservation reserve at St. Williams is 1,034 hectares (2,555 acres). The budget for the conservation reserve does fluctuate depending on grants received, but is about $150,000-$200,000 per year, Heagy said.

“A conservation reserve is Crown Land that is regulated under Ontario Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, and that one piece of legislation covers both how provincial parks and conservation reserves are managed,” she explained.

She noted since April 2019, provincial parks were managed by Ontario Parks, and conservation reserves were managed directly by the Ministry of Natural Resources.

“The purpose of a conservation reserve is to protect significant natural and cultural features on Crown Lands while maintaining the opportunities for compatible traditional activities, such as hunting and ATVs.”

There are many types of protected areas in Ontario, such as national parks, national wildlife areas, national marine protected areas, totalling about 1.3 per cent.

“There are a lot more provincially protected areas: 653 in total, including provincial parks, conservation areas, Crown Lands and so on, totalling 9.4 percent of Ontario.”

There are also privately-protected conservation areas, 211 in total including some Land Trust properties and Nature Conservancy of Canada properties.

The total amount of protected area in Ontario amounts to 10.7 per cent.

She said Ontario falls well short of the 17 per cent land area target the province has come up with.

There are 335 provincial parks in Ontario (6.9 per cent of Ontario), 295 conservation reserves (1.4 per cent of province) of Ontario, but Heagy notes that most of the existing conservation reserves in Ontario are situated in northern Ontario.

She noted the confusion between conservation areas and nature reserves, but confirmed that conservation reserves specifically applies to Crown Lands that are protected under the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act and which are regulated by the province as a conservation reserve.

“St. Williams Conservation Reserve in Norfolk County has an overlap with Prince Edward County with a long history of First Nations settlement, followed by the forest and fur trade, with a logging and lumber boom in the 1800s, then turned over to agricultural pasture and crop lands.”

Norfolk County is different from Prince Edward County as it has sand soils which dry out when exposed to wind, she said.

“This led to the creation of the first forestry station in Ontario and Canada at St. Williams, with the first experimental planting to try and stabilize the sand soils by planting white pine trees.”

The forestry station closed in 1998.

As a result, 1,500 hectares of well-used and well-loved Crown Lands, after six years of consultation, became a conservation reserve, which formally happened in 2005.

Heagy said a conservation reserve was decided upon for St. Williams as a good way to balance the different interests that applied to the Crown Lands.

“They were ecological significant with many rare and endangered species; there was a history of forestry research with several plantations still being actively studied, there was cultural heritage, and the forestry station had been a major employer, and great diversity of recreational activities occurring on the lands.”

The recreational activities that were permitted to continue once the lands transferred from being Crown Lands to being a conservation reserve at St. Williams included horseback riding, hunting, mountain bikes, snowmobiles, ATVs, dirt bikes, also bird watching, hiking, dog walking, and cross-country skiing.

“The management plan was developed over a two year process with the overarching goal set was to determine that the future for these lands and these tracts would be a flourishing example of biological diversity representing their pre-European settlement natural legacy of ecological communities while protecting their unique cultural heritage and providing opportunities for compatible public land uses.”

Heagy explained how there is a diverse ecology found in the area, such as provincially significant wetlands, a hemlock ravine with cold water trout streams and a cornelian forest that supports many species at risk.

She also spoke to how the conservation reserve is being managed and the community council involvement.

“In 2006, when the conservation reserve was being established, the MNR was looking at a community-based model, so a community council was established which became the face of the community and took a management lead in its operations.”

She noted this model has not been used in any other conservation reserves.

The community council had two roles: a communications role, and an implementation role, she said.

The community council remained for five years before opting to incorporate as a non-profit organization, independent of the MNR.

“The community council set up a board of directors with volunteer members who worked collaboratively with MNR, and were tasked with raising funds to do work within the conservation reserve.”

Heagy noted the conservation reserve still generates revenue from forestry operations, which can range from $18,000 to over $100,000 per year, which are maintained in a rainy day fund.

She said they focus on species at risk, habitat improvement, controlling invasive exotic plant species, surveying for species at risk, and forest management.

“All this work has to be done consistent with environmental assessment screenings done by Ontario Parks, where a lot of reporting and planning goes into these activities, year after year.”

Cultural heritage protection is one of the management goals for the conservation reserve. The community council has also been heavily engaged in trails and recreation management.

She noted that people are allowed to walk wherever they want in the conservation reserve.

“Pedestrians and hunters can access any of the area with designated equestrian trails shared by horse riders and pedestrians. There are also multi-use trails which can be used by motorized ATVs, dirt bikes, horses and mountain bikes.“

She noted there was unauthorized motor use in some areas.

“Enforcement is still an on-going issue both in the wetland area and the sand barren areas, but there is enforcement happening with Ontario Parks.”

Heagy said volunteers are at the heart of the community council, both in the governance aspects and hands-on work.

“We are working with researchers and collaborators doing outreach, helping with roadside garbage pick-up, and we couldn’t do it without volunteers,” said Heagy, noting the challenges faced so far.

“Work with government has been a challenge with high staff turnover, along with a different way of operating conservation reserves,” she said.

“Trust-building and learning is on-going with Ontario Parks, and there have been major challenges to achieve that management goal of balancing that ecologically and the integrity of the conservation along with the diverse recreational uses,” she said. “Trying to remedy and find solutions when problems crop-up it and finding that balance increases.”

She noted the demand the recreational facilities with the conservation reserve and noted no user fee has ever been in place.

“It has taken a while to get going, but it has been working well and something that you might find as a useful model for the South Shore Conservation Area, given that you’ve a strong local community group up and running,” Heagy said.

Information on the South Shore Joint Initiative, their history, the work they undertake, events and how to get involved can be found at ssji.ca .

 

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