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TEXT BY LORRAINE JOHNSON
A new approach to the protection and management of remaining natural areas in the Hamilton/Burlington region offers an exceptional example of collaboration for the greater good. Under the banner of the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System, a multi-agency alliance has formed to purchase and restore remaining green spaces and create corridors connecting Lake Ontario to the Niagara Escarpment. Discussions began in 2006, and a formal agreement (a Memorandum of Understanding) among the various partners was signed in 2013. According to Peter Kelly, coordinator of the project, no other alliance quite like it exists in eastern North America. What’s unique is that although the deed for each land purchase (or donation) may be held by one particular agency within the coalition, the money for the purchase may be jointly raised, with the understanding that the land will be protected and managed in perpetuity as part of the larger EcoPark System.
The alliance formed in response to development pressure in one of Canada’s most rapidly growing urban regions. Natural areas in this part of southern Ontario are severely fragmented, with a number of 400-series highways and rail lines flowing through—and bisecting—the landscape.
According to David Galbraith, Head of Science at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Hamilton who has been chair of the EcoPark System initiative from its earliest days, the project stemmed from two related questions: how best to manage Cootes Paradise, which the RBG owns, and how best to facilitate the ongoing remediation of Hamilton Harbour, which multiple agencies, including the RBG, are involved in.
“You can’t improve a harbour,” notes Galbraith, “if you don’t improve the watershed.” Hence, the natural heritage committee of the remediation project started exploring options to bring various conservation groups and agencies together to improve connectivity across the landscape. “We tend to manage natural areas on the basis of property lines,” says Galbraith. “But a Jefferson salamander doesn’t care who owns the land. What’s important are things like road risks, and permeability of the landscape, and habitat values.”
To date, nine partner groups have signed onto the formal agreement to expand conservation lands in the region, and to restore the properties: two conservation authorities (Conservation Halton and Hamilton Conservation Authority), three municipalities (City of Burlington, City of Hamilton, and Halton Region), three non-profit organizations (Bruce Trail Conservancy, Hamilton Naturalists’ Club, and Royal Botanical Gardens), and one university (McMaster). Each of the partners has contributed funds, and decisions about acquisition and restoration are made by consensus. “Everyone has to be on board for decisions,” says Peter Kelly. And, so far, this model has worked well.
Properties are acquired by the partnership in three ways: by direct purchase; by donation; through conservation easements. “Individually, each group wouldn’t necessarily have the funds to buy strategically important corridors,” says Galbraith, “but together we’ve got clout and more resources.” In a highly unusual and altruistic approach to land ownership, the alliance doesn’t place much importance on which group actually has title to the land—the point is rather that the land is protected by a group sharing a bigger goal of conservation.
Beyond actual ownership for conservation purposes, one of the other tangible benefits of the arrangement is that the alliance meets regularly to address common concerns and land management issues collectively. “We’ve created a table where we can all get together,” as Galbraith puts it. Topics covered include the common problem of invasive species and issues related to managing urban wildlife such as coyotes, for example. Restoration plans for each property in the EcoPark System are developed jointly by committee and agreed to by all.
As of early 2017, a total of 5,000 acres of land are protected in the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System. The RBG has designated all 2,700 acres of its lands to the initiative—right down to the parking lots. Other partners have also contributed lands under their jurisdiction, and the alliance has added another 223 acres since the Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2013.
Both Kelly and Galbraith speak with enthusiasm of one particular success for the alliance: the protection of a wildlife corridor that connects a coastal wetland on the western end of Lake Ontario to the Niagara Escarpment. This is the last such connection that does not have a 400-series highway running through it. Now, it has pride of place in a new model of collaborative, connected conservation.
BIO/ LORRAINE JOHNSON IS THE AUTHOR OF THE RECENTLY PUBLISHED REVISED EDITION OF 100 EASY-TO-GROW NATIVE PLANTS FOR CANADIAN GARDENS AND THE EDITOR OF GROUND.