Forty years ago my family started hiking the Bruce Trail. In 1986 my eight-year–old son became the youngest to complete the trail end-to-end. Every trip included new plants, secretive animals,or aerial acrobatics. Then I began searching for land to get the trail off roads. Over ten years I helped the Bruce Trail Association buy fifteen properties by assisting with fundraising and land acquisition. A group of us decided a new land trust, Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy, was required to work beyond the trail, protecting Escarpment ecosystems as far as the Huron shore and Manitoulin. Our first reserve was on the Escarpment at Dyer’s Bay in December 1998 and protected 12.5 acres of wetland between the cottages and the trail.
Since then, our team has been quietly working away. After twenty-five years, we have 225 nature reserves with fifty-one of them protecting twenty-four kilometres of Escarpment “slope” with a total of 4,752 acres (19 sq km) now safe from development pressures and mostly available for the public to visit. In the first six weeks of 2023 we protected four new reserves with 830 acres and 3.6 km of escarpment slope. Two are just outside the “official” Niagara Escarpment boundary; one adjacent to Pretty River Provincial Park. Two more Escarpment reserves are coming in February; sixty-two acres of sloping land near Kemble and 39 acres of slope and Bruce Trail in Grimsby.
My father, also an architect, asked me on every visit, “What are you going to do with all that land.” He couldn’t picture not building on it. When I speak at Rotary Clubs, I think they picture land as an attractive setting or a place to play sports. It’s hard to visualize the support nature gives people; tourism and the benefits that come from protecting nature’s services like carbon sequestration, reduced flooding, or better air and water quality. We easily forget that time spent in nature reduces our blood pressure, relieves anxiety, and gets us those steps we need to strengthen our hearts. Using Ontario government values, we protect about $40 million worth of these services every year.
Biodiversity is just one of these services nature provides. We have identified seventy species of conservation importance on our 225 nature reserves. How do you put a value on saving endangered or threatened species? Some would include the value of nature tourism like birding. Others would include what people would pay to save them from extinction. There are plenty of examples of medical and other discoveries based on characteristics of plants and animals. We are pleased to be part of the defence against climate change as our trees have absorbed about 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to date. Our sales of carbon offsets have reached $500,000, but that’s a small fraction of their true value.
This work would have been impossible without the financial assistance of Environment and Climate Change Canada and the help of the Niagara Escarpment Commission, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and a whole range of municipalities. Our efforts have recently been focussed on the “30 percent by 2030” efforts of the 193 nation Biodiversity program which has pushed us to protect $10 million of Ontario land during the last year. More and more, we try to explain our work in terms that economic pragmatists will understand.
Bob Barnett, Founder Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy.