SWCRCC Open House Guided Walking Tour Saturday, October 28, 2023
By Sue Graci
The St Williams Conservation Reserve Community Council Open House 2023 took place this year in the form of a walking tour in the Turkey Point Tract. It was a perfect day for a hike – cool weather with a light breeze and no rain meant the trails were dry and easy to navigate for those in attendance.
The Open House began with attendees gathered in the sandy parking lot in the Turkey Point Tract. A brief history of the SWCR was given to the audience by Audrey Heagy, Coordinator for the CR. The parking lot itself was a point of discussion as its creation killed several birds with one stone – it was needed for off road parking for SWCR users, it has a sandy base suitable for parking, it serves as an area for log piling during plantation thinning, and it removed some invasive species that were particularly aggressive in that spot.
Audrey brings with her years of experience and intimate knowledge of the CR, having been involved since 2008, moving from the Community Council (established in 2007) to Coordinator for the past 10 years. Her knowledge extends far beyond the CR, encompassing local history and the various government policy changes that had responsibility for and management of the CR somewhat of a moving target at times.
Audrey spoke about the goals of the Community Council, which is made up of local volunteers. The Community Council works closely with representatives from Ontario Parks, the agency responsible for the Conservation Reserve. The goals are both short and long term – the work being done today is in accordance with the SWCR Management Plan that spans the next 50 years. This is reviewed every 2 years to ensure information is up to date. The SWCRCC meets monthly to conduct business relating to the SWCR.
There are many rare and uncommon plants in the Turkey Point Tract, like Virginia Goat’s Rue, Spotted Wintergreen, Bird’s-Foot Violet, and Eastern Flowering Dogwood. Their protection is one of the goals of the SWCRCC so trails may be closed, or vegetation removal may be restricted in their vicinity. The areas are well signed to users.
The group learned about the five objectives of the SWCRCC:
- Natural heritage protection and restoration – restore the habitat to pre-European settlement era – encourage native species and remove invasive or non-native species;
- Cultural heritage protection – recognition that the lands in the Conservation Reserve were once part of the St Williams Forestry Station, the first provincial forestry station.
- Recreational opportunities – there are more activities allowed in Conservation Reserves than in most parks or conservation areas, such as horseback riding, ATVs, mountain bikes, off-trail hiking, and hunting – obeying signage is an important part of using the SWCR responsibly as not all trails are open to all types of users,
- Educational awareness – through volunteer programs, social media, promotions at events to raise awareness of the work being done, student tours, and group tours by interested organizations,
- Research opportunities – with research partners like McMaster University’s Dr. Altaf Arain whose work focuses on carbon sequestration in forests.
Several SWCRCC members attended the Open House, with Jay Maxwell adding to Audrey Heagy’s introduction by stressing the importance of volunteers. A volunteer signup sheet was conveniently located in the bed of Jay’s truck, and several people made use of it before the end of the event.
The attendees were split into two groups and toured the CR, with Audrey Heagy taking one group and Joelle Giles and Eric Giles the other. Eric has been doing invasive plant control and habitat management work at the Conservation Reserve since 2011 and shared his incredible wealth of knowledge about plants and insects. Joelle has recently joined the SWCR as Assistant Coordinator and is soaking up information about the Conservation Reserve and all the work being done by the Community Council and its contractors.
The first stop on the hike was the kiosk at the parking lot – it has a QR and NFC to download the trail brochure. There are also interpretive signs with information on the natural history of this area.
Heading through the tract the groups were able to see several pine plantations, a research station by McMaster researcher Dr. Altaf Arain, and a rare remnant of Oak Savanna that had never been farmed or used for pine plantations. Oak Savanna was the main vegetation in the Turkey Point area prior to land clearing by European settlers.
Plant and tree identification was a big part of the tour, along with the history of each, as the attendees hiked through them. White, red, and Scots pine plantations were planted as the St Williams Forestry Station experimented with different trees, finding what species thrived in the soil, with different companion trees alongside. Species like White Birch, Catalpa, Silver Fir, and Hedge Maple were planted, even though not all were native.
Logging has been done strategically, targeting the pine plantations, and keeping the SWCR goals in mind. Removing non-native trees like Scots pine, which are being thinned and eventually will be removed entirely, has benefits like opening areas to light, providing space to reintroduce native species, and bringing in funds to support the activities. Every logging operation is conducted as part of the SWCR Management Plan and preservation of Species at Risk (SAR) is always a big consideration. Areas can be cordoned off, trees marked to be left standing to provide wildlife habitat, and even slash (the materials left after a logging operation) must be left in a manner agreed to by both logger and SWCRCC, with penalties in place should this agreement not be fulfilled.
Audrey highlighted that slash left after logging may appear ugly but provides shelter for wildlife and enriches the soil as it decomposes. In some cases, the slash may be piled and burned to prepare sites for seeding with native flowers and grasses.
The goal of restoring the habitat to pre-European settlement times means the removal of many of the planted trees and control of many invasive non-native species, trees, shrubs, and perennials so that native species can thrive.
Attendees were shown examples of Spotted Wintergreen, which grows in only a handful of locations in all of Canada, most of which are in Norfolk County.
Throughout the hike, people asked questions about tree and shrub identification, how the SWCR can be used, what the trail signage indicates, and what some of the challenges to habitat restoration and rehabilitation can be. It was a lively group ranging from seasoned volunteers and hikers to those being introduced to the area’s flora and fauna for the first time.
A stop at the research site of McMaster University’s Altaf Arain provided insights into carbon sequestration and how the age and composition of a forest affects its ability to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide. He was quick to point out that forest sequestration supports other efforts to reduce carbon dioxide; it is not a solution to climate change on its own. He was enthusiastic about the work he and his students are doing and was able to discuss their work in layman’s terms.
There are numerous research projects being conducted in the SWCR at any given time, something that aligns with the goals of the SWCRCC.
When the groups returned to the parking lot refreshments were waiting.
And so was that signup sheet for volunteers!