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It takes a village to protect a mountain
| It was a great source of pride to everyone associated with Mont St-Hilaire when in 1978 the sprawling mountain became Canada's first UNESCO-named biosphere reserve. The title is bestowed only upon those sites where there is both an extraordinary natural and human ecology.
Mont St-Hilaire and Lake Hertel
PHOTO: FRANCIS LÉPINE
Mont St-Hilaire, 40 kilometres east of Montreal, can boast of having that combination of traits thanks, in large part, to a certain Brigadier Hamilton Gault who willed his share of the mountain to McGill more than 40 years ago, entrusting the university to preserve the land.
Gault and the previous owner, the Campbell family, did little in their century of ownership to alter the vast tract of forest covering the 12 square kilometres and McGill has continued in that vein. Many of the maples and beech trees in this old-growth forest began as seedlings 400 years ago; today they comprise the largest remnant in the region of the primeval forest of the St. Lawrence Valley.
At this time of year, the forest floor is clouded with the white of trilliums and the sounds of grosbeaks, woodpeckers and warblers — three of the area's 168 species of birds — emanate from high in the burgeoning canopy. If you watch carefully from the Dieppe Summit, one of the mountain's eight peaks, you might catch sight of the peregrine falcon catching prey to take to his mate.
But being a biosphere reserve does not guarantee that all is safe.
While McGill's Gault Nature Reserve does all it can to preserve its constituents from the excesses of human activity, no ecosystem is an island. And the boundary of the biosphere reserve, still under determination, extends well beyond the Gault. It includes the orchards, agricultural lands, housing developments and a rock quarry that make a ring around the land. It also includes the town of Mont-St-Hilaire, which last year passed a resolution to work with McGill to develop a governing structure for the biosphere reserve.
It was a move welcomed by the director of the Gault Nature Reserve, McGill biology professor Martin Lechowicz, who calls the rapport between the McGill-run reserve and the town of Mont-St-Hilaire "a town-gown relationship of the best sort."
As an "outsider," an American who lives in Hudson and speaks "poor" French, Lechowicz says he couldn't carry the message from the mountain to the town without "good allies." And Mont-St-Hilaire is full of those. As the town's mayor of 32 years, Honorius Charbonneau says, with pride, "80 per cent of the people are concerned with protecting the mountain."
So much so that for the past four years, they have been fighting the city in order to prevent the construction of condominium blocks that would abut the western foot of the mountain, just beneath the Dieppe Summit, threatening the security of the peregrine's cliffside nesting site, one of only 10 in the province.
And the people have won; six months ago the city repurchased the land, at a cost of $700,000, from the developer and the province has issued a document of intent to create a wildlife reserve for the endangered raptor.
If that battle is over, however, the war continues.
One of the tenets of the concept of a biosphere reserve is to provide a buffer zone and an area of cooperation around the core area of preservation in order that a species' particular ecosystem doesn't end abruptly, preventing those with particular needs for space and location — like the peregrine — to reproduce.
"If Mont St-Hilaire goes the way of Mount Royal, it will lose its value," explains biologist Marc-André Guertin, a native of the town and secretary of the Centre de réhabilitation des oiseaux blessés de la Montérégie. "It will become an island ecosystem, not connected to anything."
Until recently, the Gault Nature Reserve, which occupies the entire top of the mountain, was blessed by being virtually surrounded by apple orchards and agricultural land — an ideal buffer zone. But some of the orchards are old and not very productive.
For the moment, there is a provincial law preventing the smaller orchards from being converted to residential land, but as Kees Vanderheyden knows all too well, the law won't hold forever if the orchardists can't make a living from their prized land.
Vanderheyden is director of the MSH Nature Centre, the public section of the Gault Nature Reserve. Hired five years ago, Vanderheyden is researching ways to make the orchards more profitable. Beginning next fall, for instance, he will buy, then resell at no profit, apple products at the centre where thousands of visitors pass annually on their way to trek in the woods on foot, skis or snowshoes. Director of McGill's School of Architecture, David Covo, is supervising a student project to create a "boutique de pommiculture."
"Something must be done to encourage the growers. Most will have to change to growing other kinds of fruits," says Vanderheyden.
Vanderheyden is the first director of the Nature Centre since its board was restructured so that the majority, seven, of the 12 board members would be from Mont-St-Hilaire; in the past the majority were McGill people.
This was the initiative of the former associate vice-principal (planning and physical resources) Sam Kingdon when, five years ago, the Gault Estate was close to bankruptcy and McGill's administration seriously considered closing it.
Kingdon rallied to keep the extraordinary natural wonder in the public realm, convincing Mayor Charbonneau to pay half of the $556,000 debt over 10 years, while McGill would look after the rest and the interest.
From Vanderheyden's point of view, Kingdon's expanding the governance of the Nature Centre to the local community and his asking for support from the town went a long way toward making the citizenry of Mont-St-Hilaire feel that the mountain was theirs and not simply McGill's.
Jacques Messier, president of L'Association des citoyens de Mont-St-Hilaire, says the community certainly feels closely connected to the mountain today. More residents signed the petition to stop the condos than voted for the mayor in the last election, he notes. "'Ne touchez pas à la montagne,' they said loud and clear."
There are still plenty of challenges to face. Teenagers want to party on the mountain, scale the cliffs or drive their recreational vehicles along the lower paths. There are the developers eager to exploit the stunning locations offered by the mountain. And there is also the matter of managing the use of the Nature Centre so that the 110,000 annual visitors don't inadvertently widen the paths, damage the undergrowth, leave their garbage or light fires.
This is where the path comes full circle back to Martin Lechowicz.
For it is his mandate as director of the Gault to create academic interest at McGill in conducting research on the mountain. Over the years, the region has been the focus of almost 500 research publications, but, Lechowicz notes, most relate to a few disciplines — biology, geography and geology.
Why, for instance, wonders Lechowicz, do so few schools come to the mountain? Standing in the foyer of the Nature Centre, he makes a mental note to himself to speak to someone in education about the state of natural science in schools. "Nature study seems to be out of fashion. Where are the kids, like me, who buried dead mice in the woods and grew up to be ecologists?" he asks, only half in jest.
What more could be done so that the town further benefits from the mountain and its other tourist attractions? "There's a project for a group of economics or business students," he continues.
Lechowicz sees plenty of promise both for the mountain and McGill.
"It's a good community in which to be doing this; we could be a national example, an example of what can be done to protect a green space near a big city."