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| Nature conservationists have won some peace of mind in Mont Saint-Hilaire. McGill's Gault Nature Reserve has received increased environmental protection from the Government of Quebec.
Photo: Owen Egan
On March 6, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum met with politicians at the picturesque mountaintop estate to sign an agreement of principle to further protect the reserve. André Boisclair, Quebec Minister of State for Municipal Affairs, Greater Montreal, Environment and Water, designated the Gault Nature Reserve as a "nature reserve under private ownership."
The added protection was issued under Bill 129 — a law created to help conserve Quebec's environmental treasures. The legal safeguard will help McGill in its quest to preserve the mountain's precious ecosystem.
"I'm sure the former owner of this vast estate would rejoice in the support the Government of Quebec is demonstrating towards McGill University and the Gault Nature Reserve," said Heather Munroe-Blum. "In discerning this legal status, the government is giving us the tools needed to preserve this site."
Conservation of the Gault Nature Reserve, situated at the summit of Mont Saint-Hilaire, is of paramount concern to McGill and the provincial government. About 32 km south of Montreal, the mountain features the largest remnant of the primeval forests of the St. Lawrence River Valley. Some trees are up to 500 years old.
The woodland is internationally recognized for its scientific and patrimonial significance and was the first Canadian site to be named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978. What's more, Mont Saint-Hilaire is home to one of Quebec's richest clusters of biodiversity: 600 plant species, 800 types of butterflies, 13 kinds of fish, 45 mammal varieties, 180 bird species and a lake.
McGill has owned the Gault Nature Reserve since 1958, when Andrew Hamilton Gault bequeathed his ten-square-kilometre estate to the university. With Gault's gift came one critical condition: "that its beauties and amenities may be preserved for all time to come, not only to the immediate interests of the university itself, but through its corridors of learning, as a great heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of the youth of Canada."
Today, half of the property is open to the public and is known as the Mont Saint-Hilaire Nature Conservation Centre, a non-profit organization created by McGill to manage the site since 1972. The other half of the Gault Nature Reserve, the preservation area, is closed to the public and is used for teaching and research.
Strengthening protection for the entire Gault Nature Reserve under Bill 129, said Boisclair, was considered necessary for the mountain's future survival. The reason? The town of Mont Saint-Hilaire keeps growing. Sprawling forests are being cut in favour of sprawling cottages. The current headcount is 14,270 residents — a considerable increase from the town's roughly 2,000 residents in the 1960s.
Protecting the Gault Nature Reserve under Bill 129, said Boislair, "protects the Gault Estate against all forestry, mining or other exploitation; against any expropriation that McGill could face; and offers McGill a legal base to fight any damages brought to the reserve."
During his visit to the Gault Nature Reserve, Boisclair also announced the government was granting $150,000 for the renovation of the mountain's visitors pavilion, as well as to fund improvements to public areas and educational activities. The minister then announced that the provincial government would create a committee to examine ways to further protect the mountain and its surrounding beltway.
"We must, as a society, find ways to protect our ecosystems," said Boisclair. "There's still much work to be done."
For more information about the Gault Nature Reserve, please consult www.mcgill.ca/gault.