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Collaborating to Green the Southwestern Ontario Landscape

 

The natural landscapes of southern Ontario are under pressure from a host of challenges. While the devastation of the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) infestation is most immediately evident in the damage it has inflicted, a wide range of additional pressures have made ecological restoration in the region a complex puzzle requiring equally complex and multifaceted solutions. Enhancing seed collection capacity among local communities, developing a more thorough understanding of assisted migration and “best bet” species in light of climate change, and promoting species diversity are among the key challenges in the region.

Forests Ontario and several of its partners began receiving requests for assistance from landowners who were observing high levels of mortality in ash plantations and natural woodlots with a high ash component as a result of the EAB infestation. However, because of the diversity of ecological challenges in the region, the restoration activities in the St. Clair, Lower Thames River and Essex Region watersheds go well beyond programs that try to rehabilitate dead Ash sites.

Managers strive to restore sites to a more natural, diverse and resilient condition, and in the southwest this typically requires the establishment of several native species. For many of those species there is little management experience to draw upon, and in some cases there are only limited supplies of locally adapted seed. A skilled workforce would need to be engaged to deliver an enhanced, larger scale restoration program. Sufficient funding would be required for the rehabilitation of sites destroyed by the work of the EAB, and related costs could exceed the subsidies provided by the government of Ontario’s 50 Million Tree Program.

The three main Conservation Authorities in the region – Lower Thames River, Essex Region, and St. Clair Region – have taken the lead in bringing together a diverse group of actors to form a collaborative to build a greater base of knowledge around these various challenges and use that knowledge to expand the scope of their restoration efforts.

Although only in its second working year of collaboration, the Southwest Afforestation Technical Team (SWATT) is committed to investing and enhancing community greenscapes that will benefit future generations. The success of SWATT thus far illustrates the need for ecological restoration initiatives to involve non-traditional voices. This involvement has had a significant impact on the capacity of communities in the region to restore the health of our ecosystem through on the ground efforts.

Ron Thayer is a Forests Ontario Field Advisor with a long history working with local community groups to initiate and maintain stewardship activities. That experience led him to consider a non-traditional way of doing business in Ontario’s extreme southwest.

The intent was to engage a broader collaborative, encouraging input from various organizations and allowing for the pursuit of new restoration opportunities involving the community as a whole. Ron argued that many new issues like increasing crop prices or the demise of pollinators currently affect delivery and capacity to properly manage today’s restoration program. So began discussions that would draw in a wide range of community members and organizations.

The three Conservation Authorities all traditionally play a key role in seed collection and the management of tree planting programs, and readily joined Forests Ontario in the collaborative. The group sought the involvement of the Carolinian Canada Coalition, whose mission is to protect and restore natural heritage in the Carolinian Life Zone, Lambton College with its focus on education and science development, members of Walpole Island First Nation, and the North Eastern Seed Company with its’ interest in Carolinian tree seed collection and nursery stock production. These organizations all agreed to a new collaborative approach to restoration.

The strength of the collaborative is working to develop an enriched and sustained restoration approach using tree planting programs that are in touch with community needs and objectives and that utilize the strengths of a much broader range of partners than normally considered. Some of the priorities of the collaborative include:

 

• Integrating existing community forest plans

 

• Promoting more species diversity within their planting programs, particularly locally adapted Carolinian species

 

• Building strong community relationships and partnerships with non-traditional community planting partners including corporate landowners, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, farmers and farm-based organizations

 

• Working with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to establish assisted migration and climate change studies for monitoring the best bet species for the next generation

 

• Establishing community tree planting demonstrations that will be used to help match trees species to soil types, and in the long-term improve the effectiveness of restoration efforts by ensuring optimal tree survival and performance

 

• Community demonstration plantings that will incorporate the establishment of mixed species forests from which the compatibility of a variety of different species can be monitored

 

• Establishing community-based certified seed collection courses to train local people and organizations in all aspects of seed collection and management needed for the future

 

• Engaging Lambton College staff and students not only in the training of potential tree seed collectors but in the development of best practices for the production of Carolinian species nursery stock

 

• Establishing a southwest Ontario community seed bank to meet future tree supply targets.

 

For those involved in the collaborative, working towards an achievable set of goals remains a priority. “I am pleased to be part of a group of experienced and knowledgeable people who have come together to resolve issues related to afforestation and conservation in a broader area. We work beyond our normal boundary lines and cooperate by discussing issues at hand and sharing ideas,” says Steve Shaw of St. Clair Region Conservation Authority. “Everyone is committed to achieving the same goals such as

meeting seed collection targets, increasing tree species diversity and future seedling stock availability, rehabilitation of ash plantations and partnering with local industry to promote conservation projects in this region.”

Most importantly, for an entire program to succeed it is important that the effort identify stakeholders and other partners within the broader community who will not only be strong advocates, but are also willing to contribute and participate, and that is what this collaborative endeavors to promote. “Community ownership and ‘buy-in’ of program objectives and its delivery has always been a high priority to our organization,” says Paul Giroux, forester with the Essex Region Conservation Authority. “There is a need to direct resources in their watershed appropriately while finding community leaders who can commit to building successful local restoration programs.”

“The strength of the collaborative relies on keen, dedicated individuals and organizations willing to put in the hard work to affect, real lasting change,” says Al Corlett, Director of Programs at Forests Ontario. “I look forward to working with our partners to implement on the ground solutions in southwest Ontario.”