Elmira sets aside 67 acres for nature reserve

·4 min read

ELMIRA — The Township of Woolwich has set aside nearly 70 acres for a nature reserve in Elmira.

The 67 acres along the southeast side of Elmira will now be known as the Elmira Nature Reserve.

The group behind the idea for the reserve is Trees for Woolwich, a volunteer community group dedicated to planting more trees in the township. The parcel of land east of Union Street is owned by the township, and is mostly floodplain, making it unsuitable for development, said Trees for Woolwich founder Inge Rinne.

“I think this space will benefit people in a lot of ways,” said Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz. “It’s a fairly big piece of property and if you want to take an hour or two to get out in nature, it will be a great place to do that.”

On Friday, Mark Schwarz and a team from his landscaping company Earthscapes were planting some of the first mature trees into the newly created reserve to begin the restoration process. The trees ranged in height from three to five metres tall, and together with their root balls weighed between 1,500 and 3,500 pounds.

“This morning this was three or four acres of empty field, and by the time we’re done tonight it will look more like a young forest,” said Schwarz.

The Elmira Nature Reserve is an extension of the Habitats project that began last fall. The Habitats is a six-acre educational site that will have walking trails through five distinct restored native habitats including oak savannah, tallgrass prairie, maple beech and yellow-birch forest, early successional forest and wetland.

The land is a mixture of abandoned field, woodlot and wetland, said Rinne, and restoring these 67 acres is going to take some work.

“The invasive species aren’t just creeping in, but galloping in,” she said.

Trees for Woolwich plans to plant 2,000 trees in the Elmira Nature Reserve in addition to the 1,200 trees planned for the Habitats project.

The complexity of maintaining 67 acres, up from six, is also greatly increased, said Schwarz. The space already includes many more types of ecosystems, or potential for more ecosystems, including a silver maple swamp, cedar swamp, sugar bush, oak savannah and pollinator meadows.

Other plans for the space include a grove of spring-flowering trees dedicated to COVID heroes, an Indigenous history trail, a Carolinian walk and trails throughout. Way-finding signage will be installed this summer, said Schwarz

The majority of the Nature Reserve is planned to be genuine natural area, said Rinne.

“The aim is to have this be a natural area and to make use of what’s already there and to augment a self-sustaining ecosystem,” she said.

“This nature reserve is completely surrounded by the industrial part of Elmira,” added Schwarz. “After a few years, the goal is that you won’t be able to see the city at all, and to be completely immersed in nature inside the town.”

Rinne estimates the Elmira Nature Reserve will be actively planted and maintained for the next five to 10 years.

The first step will be to rip out invasive species, starting with the phragmites. The group received a $1,000 grant to help get rid of the phragmites.

This summer the group plans to tackle the buckthorn with volunteers. Other work includes establishing trails, monitoring for invasive species, planting trees and tending the newly planted trees.

Some of the Nature Reserve has already been planted by Trees for Woolwich in past projects, said Rinne, but the group needed a vision and unified long-term plan for the area.

Rinne estimates the full project will cost $160,000. Lanxess, a local chemical manufacturing company near the reserve, has already committed funds for the next five years, said Rinne.

“When corporations make multi-year commitments, it really allows us to plan rather than having to scurry around, asking what can we afford to do this year,” said Rinne.

She said that the land is completely owned by the township and will not be dependent on co-operation with private landowners. COVID has shown how important constant and guaranteed access to natural spaces truly is, she said.

Shantz stresses the leading role of the volunteers.

“They’ve planted over 30,000 trees in the township. They’ve taken this on to create natural spaces for everyone to enjoy.”

Rinne has seen interest in the work of Trees for Woolwich grow in the last few years.

“That really encourages me that you’re not just out there riding your own hobby horse. It’s increasingly clear that people think this work is important.”

Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email lgerber@therecord.com

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record