A Niagara Escarpment mission


We were two-thirds the way up the Bruce Peninsula, standing on a frozen beaver pond ringed with a forest of hemlocks and hardwoods, when Bob Barnett spun slowly on his heel, his arms outstretched. « This,’’ he said, with a grin wider than the winter sky, « this is why I’m doing it.’’
His arms took in not just the beauty around us, but the aloneness. Although we were only half an hour’s walk from from the gravel road that brought us here to the Escarpment, we could have been anywhere in time.

There were no sounds other than forest sounds, nothing a human hand had made. Nothing to mark where in history we would be when we left.

As he was to say later in the day, « We need this. We need to know where we came from. We need it as a point of reference, so we know where we are, and who we are.

« We live always within a context. And if we can’t experience the grandeur and expanse of this greater context in which all of humanity lives, we are shrunken as human beings.’’

He and a couple of dozen others have set themselves the mission of saving and protecting as much of the Niagara Escarpment, as they can. « It’s the best preserved forest ecosystem east of the Rocky Mountains in all of North America,’’ he says.

To do this, the group has formed a land trust called the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy. Barnett is the vice-chair.

Revenue Canada has just approved the conservancy as a registered charitable organization, which allows it to issue a tax credit for any land or money donated. The property on which we were standing is one of eight Barnett already is negotiating to acquire.

Donating land is a way of avoiding capital gains tax. If there has been a large increase in the value of a property, say over 20 or 30 years, an owner may end up very nearly as well off by donating it, and taking the tax credit, instead of selling it, and paying the tax, Barnett says.

However, donating will not be atttractive for everyone, and so Barnett has devised a scheme for raising money to buy land.

He has struck a deal with a long distance telephone provider, Comet Telecommunications Inc., of Toronto, to give cheap rates to people who want to help the conservancy. When they pay their long distance bills, Comet will donate 20 per cent to the conservancy, and claim a tax credit for the donation.

Barnett has tested the service for a year. On a monthly basis, it’s cheaper than what’s offered by the three major suppliers in Ontario, he says. The conservancy calls the service Escarpment Telecom.

On that same afternoon, we visited two other properties — one, 20 hectares in a pleasant valley not far from Shelburne; the other, the most dramatic, a thin slice of cliff on the eastern shoreline of the Bruce Peninsula, just south of Cape Chin North. It contained only 1.4 hectares, and stretched a mere 60 metres along the shoreline.

This is the area were 1,000-year-old, stunted cedars grow right out of the cliff face. I sat at the base of the cliff, with it arching over me toward Georgian Bay like the beak of some great bird of prey, listening to the turquoise waters rumble as they broke along the shoreline, and felt an immense sense of peace.

It surprised me how quickly tensions slipped away. « Bob Barnett,’’ I thought, « you people are doing a good and a grand thing.’’

Barnett is an architect, 53 years old, with offices at Davenport and Spadina Avenues in Toronto. For years he worked with the Bruce Trail Association, helping it to develop the Bruce Trail and to assemble the 1,600 hectares it now owns.

He and the others created the conservancy because the association has shifted its focus from acquiring land to caring for the land it already has. « But,’’ says Barnett « there’s a heck of a lot more that needs preserving.’’

If you want to contact the conservancy, you can reach it through Barnett’s office at 960-8121.

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