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McGill always has enjoyed the support of donors who share our commitments to academic excellence and service to society. Their contributions range from modest donations to a scholarship fund on up to the substantial monies required to endow a chair or construct a building. In 2008 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a less typical donation that immeasurably enriched the University—Andrew Hamilton Gault's bequest of his estate on Mont St-Hilaire.
Gault was heir to a fortune laid down in 19th century Montreal that passed to him in 1912. He soon purchased an isolated remnant of wild land where he had spent summers as a child—Mont St-Hilaire. Throughout his life Gault sought to protect the ecological integrity of the mountain, and as his life drew to an end he bequethed his estate to the university. He wrote:
"The mountain of St-Hilaire is my most treasured possession and in offering it to McGill it is with the hope that its beauties and amenities may be preserved for all time to come, not only in the 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."
In accepting stewardship of the Gault Estate on Mont St-Hilaire in fall 1958, McGill honored the terms of the bequest and also the obligation incumbent on any truly great university not only to provide the next generation the best education possible, but also to help preserve for future generations things that helped define our world view.
Ironically, the university's stewardship commitment was uncertain at first. Some suggested the forests on Mont St-Hilaire be cut for timber, others that a ski hill be developed. Fortunately, a young botany professor named Paul Maycock argued forcefully for protecting the mountain as a nature reserve. He pointed out that as the only tract of primeval forest in the region Mont St-Hilaire was an invaluable scientific benchmark and academic resource. Maycock's view gradually prevailed and time has proven him right. Québec now recognizes the Gault Nature Reserve on Mont St-Hilaire as a protected area on private land and designates 13 sectors within the reserve as Écosystème forestiers exceptionnel. By virtue of its scientific and patrimonial value, rich archive of past studies, good support facilities and close proximity to Montreal, the reserve is exceptionally useful for teaching and research in a wide variety of disciplines. Research since 1958 has led to over 600 peer-reviewed publications and 140 graduate theses ranging over a broad sweep of the natural and social sciences well beyond simply botany and forest ecology. Who in 1958 could have guessed geological research would reveal Mont St-Hilaire to be among the top ten mineral collecting sites in the world, home to over 40 minerals found nowhere else?
Nor coming to Mont St-Hilaire for the first time in August 1976 as a newly hired professor assigned to teach an ecology field course could I have guessed the impact this place would have on my life. Trained in forest ecology, I was stunned that the university held this magnificent forest and no one had told me about it when I interviewed! There are only a handful of eastern North America forests with the ancient trees and species-rich understory I saw that first day. The site quickly became home base for my research, secure and so well-suited to training students. There is a deep satisfaction knowing Mont St-Hilaire intimately over the years, a grandeur in the unfolding dynamics of an ancient forest confronted with disturbances as diverse as attacks by the invasive gypsy moth and the ravages of the 1998 ice storm. Resilience and persistence are the natural themes of forest ecology, but only university stewardship can let these themes play out over the centuries on this remnant of our primeval forests.
University stewardship of Mont St-Hilaire is not without its challenges. Fortunately, we are blessed with strong partners in local communities who appreciate the patrimonial and scientific value of the mountain and join the university in protecting the site for future generations. Chief among these is the Mont St. Hilaire Nature Conservation Centre, a community-based NGO founded in 1972 by Alice Johannsen who was then Director of the Redpath Museum. In 1978 Alice was also instrumental in winning UNESCO designation of the Mont St. Hilaire Biosphere Reserve, the first in Canada.
Ongoing renewal of this institutional engagement with Mont St-Hilaire is vital to the success of our stewardship for the next 50 years and beyond. I appeal to everyone in the university community: students, professors, administrative and support staff, recently arrived or already moved on to other challenges—use and support the Gault Nature Reserve! We're fortunate to have this jewel in the crown of the university.
Martin Lechowicz is a Professor in the Biology Department and Director of the Gault Nature Reserve. You can learn more about the Gault Nature Reserve at www.mcgill.ca/gault.