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McGill Reporter
May 29, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 18
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Natural treasure

McGill celebrates 50 years of stewardship at Mont St. Hilaire

McGill's Gault Nature Reserve protects 1,000 hectares of natural primeval forests and contains a 25-km trail network that is open 365 days per year.
Caption follows

McGill's Gault Nature Reserve protects 1,000 hectares of natural primeval forests and contains a 25-km trail network that is open 365 days per year.
Michael Bourguignon


Early in the twentieth century, Brigadier Andrew Hamilton Gault bought an isolated piece of wild land where he had spent part of his childhood. Throughout his life, he sought to protect the ecological integrity of the mountain, and eventually decided to pass this mission on. So 50 years ago, Gault left his property to McGill University, specifying in his will that "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."

Today, McGill's Gault Nature Reserve on Mont St. Hilaire remains a beautifully preserved, living natural landscape. And after 50 years of McGill presence on the site, there is indeed much to celebrate.

Prof. Martin Lechowicz, of the Department of Biology, first visited the Gault site "as just a young professor" in the 1970s. He immediately recognized its potential as a research and teaching venue, and has been Director of the Gault Nature Reserve since 1995. Beyond the university's activities, it was also apparent that there existed an opportunity to get the surrounding community involved.

"I was happy to take [the role of Director]," Lechowicz said. "I felt very strongly about the value of the property and its uniqueness. I definitely wanted to work to improve its use academically for teaching and research but also to improve community outreach, and so I took it on with those goals in mind."

"The research and teaching element is driven at the core by the absolute unique forest ecosystem that's there, where you've got that lake embedded in a forested watershed that is primeval forest," Lechowicz said. This makes Mont St. Hilaire an ideal site for research in areas such as ecosystem functions, the impact of climate change, and the impact of invasive plant and animal species. But it's not all about the natural sciences, Lechowicz insists, noting the importance of inter-disciplinary research including the social sciences, law and business.

As for the goal of community outreach, the McGillians at Mont St. Hilaire have over the years forged an important relationship with the citizens of the region, sparking a partnership vital to advancing the Reserve's mission. "Our community partners are devoted to that conservation mission and have the staff, the monies and the time that they need to pursue the acquisition of green space and ensure the protection of green space," Lechowicz said.

It is this partnership that contributes to the vibrancy of this natural gem. "That's what we're really celebrating," Lechowicz said. "It's the 50th anniversary - 50 years of stewardship [during which] we've met challenges, and we've met them together with the community. Under the bequest we're supposed to protect that property for future generations. We can't put a laser fence around it; we can't post guards around it. We can only do it with community co-operation and we've now built that community co-operation very effectively, and that's what we're celebrating."

The 50th anniversary celebrations will kick off on June 8 with an Open House, where visitors will be invited to discover Mont St. Hilaire as well as the many activities, the services such as Gault House manor, the Chalet and the Research Centre, and opportunities for nature lovers that the Gault Nature Reserve and McGill University have to offer.

An outdoor photo exhibit, "Portraits of a Mountain: 200 years" - a historical retrospective - will feature 28 portraits illustrating the mountain's history placed at stations along the oldest trail in the reserve. Curieux de nature (Naturally Curious), a series of public lectures highlighting the scientific work being done on the mountain, has already begun.

For more information on the celebrations and activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Gault bequest, please visit www.mcgill.ca/gault/50th.

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