View over the water from John Earle Chase in summer

Preserving the Kawarthas for Generations: Kawartha Land Trust

Just north of Ennismore, on the other side of the picturesque truss bridge at Gannon’s Narrows, you’ll find one the most quietly beautiful hiking spots in Kawarthas Northumberland. John Earle Chase Memorial Park offers 7.4 kilometres of trail across three loops – one passes through stands of mature maple on its way to the shores of Pigeon Lake, another skirts a wetland, and a third opens onto high grassy fields that look out across the entire 400 acres. Consult the map and you’ll notice the property’s management is a team effort between the Municipality of Trent Lakes, the Buckhorn Trail Association, and Kawartha Land Trust (KLT). If the latter sounds familiar, it’s because the organization that has spent the last two decades preserving and protecting the local environment.

KLT is a non-profit dedicated to ecological conservation and enhancing quality of life in the Kawarthas. They do so by collecting donations of land and financial support, using several types of agreement to ensure land is cared for in perpetuity. That means future generations will be able to enjoy a stroll through John Earle Chase Memorial Park, but the mission extends beyond simple recreation.

“We do have trails on a lot of our property,” says Rachel Rutherford, KLT’s Community Engagement and Marketing Assistant. “We allow public access when it’s compatible with the longterm protection goals of the site in the future, and if it corresponds with the wishes of the landowner.” However, of the twenty-two properties under KLT’s care, only a handful are publicly accessible. The rest are either ecologically sensitive, as in the case of wetlands, or lack the trail infrastructure to support visitors.

The list of protected properties has grown steadily since 2000, when a group of likeminded conservatists rallied around a vision of safeguarding 30% of the Kawartha region as natural space. Shortly thereafter, they registered their non-profit status and officially began seeking land. The details of each conservation project varies: in the case of “fee simple” donations, a landowner gifts the deed to the Trust. A conservation easement agreement, meanwhile, allows a landowner to retain the title while entering into a legally binding conservation agreement. KLT also makes management agreements to help steward properties it doesn’t own, as in the case of John Earle Chase Memorial Park.

Regardless of the administrative particulars, KLT’s goals for all its agreements are broadly similar. For properties with trails on them, staff and volunteers maintain signage, plant trees, and clear garbage and debris. For all properties, controlling invasive species is a prime concern. Resisting the spread of invasive species like buckthorn, garlic mustard, and dog-strangling vine with regular “pulls” encourages biodiversity and allows native plants to flourish. “A lot of this background work is not the stuff that people might see or think of,” Rutherford says. She cites the example of the McKim-Garsonnin property, where the native tall grass prairie was in danger of being overtaken. “[Land donor] Ralph McKim spent a lot of work restoring that prairie back to its natural features, so there’s been some controlled burns and things happening on that property to encourage new growth and native species.”

The work remains vital, though COVID restrictions have temporarily changed the way KLT operates. “In the past we’ve done a lot of volunteer days, stewardship days where we’ve had people come out and join us,” Rutherford says. Given the difficulties of organizing volunteer groups, the interns and staff have had to undertake that work largely on their own. Rutherford hopes volunteers will return to the field soon, though financial donations are gratefully accepted in the meantime.

Of course, provided they abide by the trail guidelines, visitors are encouraged to get out and enjoy KLT’s publicly accessible properties purely for their own enjoyment. Rutherford notes spring peepers, a surprisingly musical breed of frog, are abundant on some KLT properties, and a joy to hear. “I think people who don’t know about our trails would love to know [about] Stony Lake,” she adds. The Jeffrey-Cowan Forest Preserve section of the Stony Lake Trails boasts the highest lookout over the lake, providing a perfect slice of Canadiana. The Cation Property near Coboconk also comes highly recommended. “We have wildlife cameras on it and we’ve caught lots of different wildlife passing through there, including lots of whitetailed deer, coyotes, bears, and it even has moose that cross through that property on a regular basis. A lot of our properties are big for birders. There’s been some great birding happening on many of our trails.”

The list continues to grow, with trails set to open at the recently acquired Christie Bentham Wetland later this year. According to KLT’s Executive Director John Kintare, “The protection of the Christie Bentham Wetland was truly a community initiative that was supported by KLT. In the past, KLT has led very successful campaigns to support the stewardship needs of specific properties such as Big(Boyd/Chiminis) Island in Pigeon Lake in 2015 but this marks the first time KLT has purchased a property, rather than receiving it as a donation.”

Just south of Burleigh Falls and named in honour of a major benefactor and longtime Stony Lake conservationist, the new property will place a provincially significant wetland in good hands and provide accessible green space for the community. “We’ve been really happy that we’ve been able to keep our trails open so people can have access to nature,” Rutherford adds. “There’s even more people discovering our trails and discovering our work, which is amazing.” If you haven’t discovered Kawartha Land Trust’s diligent conservation efforts yet yourself, do yourself a favour and set out down the trail sometime soon.

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