Living with the natural world

The credo of the Algonquin to Adirondack Conservation Association (A2A) is: « The wild and the civilized can and should coexist. »

But can they coexist? The wild needs space. Lots of it. Large reservoirs of forests and wetlands that can be home to species that shy away from humans, such as wolves, lynx and fishers. Even the smallest of these three, the fishers, have ranges of more than 300 square kilometres.

Moreover, reservoirs of wildness need to be connected. To thrive, animals need to wander.

As Hans Herrmann puts it, parks and protected places that exist as islands of green aren’t enough. « We can live within a host of protected places and still lose the wildness of North America, » says Herrmann, who is head of the conservation and biodiversity program for the commission on environmental co-operation under NAFTA.

So, how much space is needed for reservoirs and their connections? Well, estimates range from one-third to one-half of the landscape.

The issue is not whether there’s enough room; the area A2A is talking about is as big as New Brunswick. It includes two large reservoirs – Algonquin Park in Ontario and Adirondack Park in New York state – as well as the land connecting them, which is predominantly the Canadian Shield, and especially the Frontenac Arch, running south from Algonquin Park and crossing the St. Lawrence River at the Thousand Islands.

The question is whether people will agree to improving and maintaining the connections between the parks. To phrase the issue negatively, it means curtailing some types of development in connecting areas. To phrase it positively, it means controlling sprawl.

It doesn’t mean banishing people. In fact, A2A states explicitly in its documents that people are needed. The best hope for maintaining and improving habitat lies with individual landowners who want to look after their land, it says.

Pam and Ted Bliss are two such people who went one step further.

Both retired, they live on the St. Lawrence River, about 22 kilometres west of Brockville, and they have just donated about 40 hectares of land on LaRue Creek to the St. Lawrence Islands National Park. (Actually, they donated it to the Thousand Islands Heritage Land Trust in order to receive a charitable receipt, and the trust gave the land to Parks Canada, which runs national parks.)

With both forest and wetland, it’s an important donation because it helps to link other similar properties between Highway 401 and the St. Lawrence.

When I asked why they had done this, it was Pam Bliss who was most explicit: « We humans are not as important as we think we are, » she said. « What right do we have to destroy all the habitat that animals need? We must find a way to peacefully coexist. »

It was interesting, I thought, that she should use the same language as A2A.

One of the things I noted on the property were pitch pines, rare in Canada and a prime example of biodiversity. The area between Brockville and Gananoque probably has the highest level of biodiversity in all of Canada. It’s because five major forest systems converge there. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence is the local forest; coming in from the east is the Atlantic Coastal, from the west the Carolinian, from the north the boreal, and from the south the Appalachian, each with its own species.

The Carolinian region of southwestern Ontario is usually cited as having the greatest biodiversity. But in 1997, a Parks Canada survey of species in all its parks found that the St. Lawrence Islands National Park had the highest count: 405 vertebrate animals and 623 vascular plants. Point Pelee National Park, the heart of the remaining Carolinian landscape, came second with 419 vertebrate animals and 586 vascular plants.

These counts are far from definitive. There are vastly more species than were counted, especially if insects and other invertebrates are included. However, these were the only counts done on a comparative basis that I could find.

And this underlines the second reason why the Bliss donation is so important. As a general rule, the density of species drops as the area of forest or wetland shrinks. In other words, big is better when it comes to habitat. If the density of a species is, say, 10 per square kilometre in a large area of habitat, the density may be only six or seven in an area of habitat half that size.

By making sure that properties rich in habitat remain linked between Highway 401 and the St. Lawrence River, the Blisses are ensuring that the numbers of each species will remain high. « We’ve seen so much land gobbled up, we felt we had to do something, » Ted said.

For Herrmann, the Blisses point the way to the future – not that everyone should donate land, but that those with land should care for it in ways that connect with the wild. In the past, the pattern has been to have parks containing the wild but no people, and communities with people but none of the wild, he says.

So, there was a deep division between people and nature. People went to parks like they would go to a zoo, for entertainment, and then they’d go home, leaving nature behind. Once home, they’d concentrate on other things and put their park experience aside, like any other piece of entertainment.

« The key to long-term conservation is to link people and nature, and this is what A2A is doing, » Herrmann says.

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