Striking a balance

In Featured, Nature Reserves by couchiching

I am sitting in the gazebo at Grant’s Woods and working remotely. There are so many birds singing – Black-throated Green Warbler, Brown Creeper, Eastern Meadowlark, Pileated Woodpecker. It’s a long list.

As I work and listen to the birds, I’m also paying attention to the people visiting the woods.

The fact that nature is imperative to our physical, emotional and mental health is nothing new. Add on the stress of the pandemic, and the loss of regular activities, and it’s clear just how critical wild natural places are to our communities. Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in the number of people visiting the Reserves.

Along with that increase come challenges. These are wild places first. The species who call these areas home are the priority. The Conservancy provides strategic trail and footpath access on over 10 Reserves as a secondary priority. We know people need nature. But what about the impact?

Over the course of the year, there have been thousands of people visiting the Reserves, especially Grant’s Woods Nature Reserve just outside of Orillia. For the most part, these nature lovers have a very low impact on the forest and species who live here.

We believe people are part of nature, not separate from it. So we try to respond by promoting respect and reciprocity toward wild spaces. We benefit from nature; it’s only right that it benefits from us.

But as the number of visitors increase, so does garbage on the trail, vandalism, people walking off the path (and crushing plants), and off leash dogs running through the forest. We even had someone notify us of an ATV that went through the trails! Compounded by the number of people – we have a problem. All of that is just at Grant’s Woods, which is one of over 50 Reserves that we help protect with supporters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Most people who visit the Reserves have a deep respect for nature, and if you are new to the outdoors, Grant’s Woods is a great place to start. That’s why there are over 10 signs at the trailhead of Grant’s Woods and through the forest, at least seven of which ask people to keep their dog on a leash, respect the forest and support the Conservancy.

So where does that leave us? What do we do? Especially during a pandemic.

First, these issues lead to lengthy conversations about the impact we have on nature. We believe people are part of nature, not separate from it. So we try to respond by promoting respect and reciprocity toward wild spaces. We benefit from nature; it’s only right that it benefits from us. We talk about striking a balance between access to the Reserves and keeping nature off limits. We talk about strategies, more signs and how we can work with volunteers to spread the message to respect these wild places.

In the interim, we have added another etiquette sign at Grant’s Woods that people have to physically walk around to continue on the trail. During the pandemic and stay at home order, we are not asking volunteers to talk to trail users. The information on our signs outlines how to be a good visitor and we hope that when people visit these wild places, they take the information seriously.

We have even for the first time, had to close a Reserve for the spring to assist some critical species. Our trail cams showed people and off leash dogs, ignoring clearly posted signage asking them not to enter areas for scientific research.

Once safe to do so, we have a team of Trail Ambassadors that are ready to talk to the people visiting these Reserves. Education is important. Asking people directly is important. We cannot protect the Reserves without support.

In the meantime, we ask that if you come, you show up in a good way, be vigilant and respect the forest and species who live there.

Together, we are protecting nature for current and future generations.

P.S. I saw two Indigo Bunting while writing this. It was exciting.

Tanya Clark
Development Coordinator and fellow nature lover
The Couchiching Conservancy