Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy celebrates 25 years of land protection

·6 min read

The Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC) celebrated 25 years with a virtual gathering on April 5. The organization, one of Ontario’s largest land trusts with more than 200 nature reserves, began in December 1997. EBC protects properties from Caledon to Creemore, throughout the Bruce Peninsula, and across Manitoulin and LaCloche.

EBC executive director Bob Barnett modelled the organization after the Bruce Trail Conservancy, where he volunteered for a number of years prior to becoming a founding member of EBC. “EBC has achieved a great deal in the last 24 years,” he told The Expositor. “So far, we’ve protected 80 square kilometres of land from development.”

Professional land-use planner and ecological economist Barbara Heidenreich said EBC has achieved the incredible feat of protecting more land than any other land trust in the province with the exception of Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC), and has topped all land trusts operating in Ontario with an annual average securement of 792 acres protected per year since its inception. The next highest is NCC, which has protected an average of 517 acres every year since it began 60 years ago. The Ontario Heritage Trust, a provincial agency, has protected an average of 116 acres a year.

EBC now protects more than 18,000 acres of land that houses 70 species of concern, including some that are endangered and threatened, and contains over 80 km of nature trails that are open to the public.

“How do you keep up with 208 nature reserves and five staff?” he asked. “This meeting is really appreciating all the effort that those volunteers have put in.”

“Our volunteers carry more than half of the load that we’re carrying as an organization,” he said. “We couldn’t hope to steward 208 nature reserves and 30 trails without their help.” He remembered “some of the people who’ve led us to where we are but unfortunately, are no longer leading the charge” as well as others who are no longer quite so active, before highlighting several current volunteers, including several from Manitoulin Island and surrounding area.

Ted Cowan was on EBCs founding board and is still on the board today. He was chair between 2005 and 2012 and has led major campaigns such as 2021’s Heaven’s Gate purchase. “Ted provides me with pretty sound advice. He’s the idea guy and he’s the guy I go to first if I’ve got a bit of a wacky idea. He and Joanne take me in when I go to Manitoulin, which I love,” Mr. Barnett said.

He couldn’t say enough about Manitoulin’s Roy Jeffery, who joined EBC in 2004. Mr. Jeffery helped EBC purchase Freer Point by finding funding and he maintains that property. “He maintains our trails on Manitoulin and LaCloche. He coordinates all the stewards up there. He donated a nature reserve,” said Mr. Barnett.

“Then we have Linda Wilson,” he continued. “Linda has been on our board for over 20 years. She stewarded several properties in western Manitoulin. She is discussing the donation of some land that she and Chuc own and she is helping us with our Indigenous relations. She is one of the real old-timers and I appreciate her help.”

He apologized for only singling out seven volunteers for tribute, when there are hundreds. “I very much appreciate them,” he said. “Thank you all for all the help you’ve given us and really, you’ve helped us create a nature reserve every month.”

Board chair Saba Ahmad joined EBC around 2012 because of her feelings of urgency around climate change. “We seem to have forgotten here in Canada, many of us, that we humans live as part of a complex web of relationships with our land. We’ve been taught to dominate the land and to extract resources as though they are inexhaustible,” she said.

One climate change solution is to reduce emissions and another is building (carbon) sinks. Ms. Ahmad was focussed on the former until she met Bob Barnett and he explained to her about ecological services. She became a conservationist.

“Before that I wasn’t really focused on that aspect of climate change,” she said. “I’ve been just so changed because I’ve gone to the properties, which was not part of my environmentalism growing up.” Visiting and walking the properties allow you to connect with nature, she said. “All of you must visit Willisville Mountain. Go up and take a look at the views. Feel the enormity of that rock beneath your feet. It’s just incredibly moving. I really have to thank everyone at EBC for giving me these places, these sacred spaces to go to and feel that connection that we lose living in the city.”

“We are a small little group at EBC and a relatively tiny group of dedicated volunteers and relatively tiny group of supporters,” Mr. Jeffery added. “When you think there’s 14,570,000 people in Ontario and we have about 4,000 active supporters, so that’s two one-hundredths of one percent of the population of Ontario that is committed to what we really believe in. I believe we’ve succeeded at EBC because the people at EBC have made the transition from believing in something to actually doing something and we’re all people of action.”

About half the wildlife species in Canada have seriously declined in population and over 20 percent are imperilled to some degree since Mr. Jeffery turned 16 in 1970, he pointed out. “Specific groups like amphibians, reptiles, birds, freshwater fish have declined the most and their habitat is something that EBC specializes in preserving. It’s a wonderful feeling to think of all we’ve accomplished with this little group.”

Few people have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time in the cradle of an intact ecosystem, he noted. “Because of EBC, I feel like I’ve actually been able to spend quite a bit of time in intact ecosystems like the amazing Heaven’s Gate ecosystem. For that I’m very thankful and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to be a steward and a volunteer with EBC.”

His hope for the future is for more people to make that transition from belief to action and are “actually helping us do something even more significant to arrest the decline of biodiversity and address the main issues that go with the loss of biodiversity, including ill considered development, climate change issues, invasive species issues, pollution issues, things like that.”

“The guy (Roy Jeffery) is just amazing,” Mr. Barnett told The Expositor . “He does so much work. He built, I think it was 12 kilometres of trail for Heaven’s Gate. A little bit of it was there but he had to fix it all up and mark it. He’s doing so much work but he’s just one man. He needs help. We keep adding properties and Roy says, I’ll do it. There’s no question that Roy should have three or four stalwart people out there helping look after the Cup and Saucer and things like that.”

EBC protects a number of properties on Manitoulin Island, including some of our most popular hiking trails and several kilometres of Lake Huron shoreline. To volunteer, become a member or learn more, visit escarpment.ca.

Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor

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