The Ganaraska Conservation Authority and the Ganaraska Forest

Last week I noticed the opening of some of the Ganaraska Conservation Area parks and thought I’d check out a few which have been on my go to list. I visited three parks, all small with really not much in the way of trails, but all very pretty and which prompt stories about[ the area’s history.

The first, Sylvan Glen is about ten minutes drive north and borders the Ganny river. There is a small trail which tracks the river south a bit, but no facilities of any sort. It is near “The Doctor’s Trail” which I may well check out next.

The second place I visited was Garden Hill Conservation Area, another ten minutes up the road. This conservation area is beside a pond that has seen better days. There is a bit of a trail, and a picnic table. I am not sure if post covid the washrooms will be opened, because they look like they are a remnant of times past. What is more interesting about this conservation area is its history, which is very nicely told in this blog by 2 Old Guys Walking. It sounds like the pond used to be quite the swimming hole and the park a real gathering spot. You can see the evidence of the hydro service to the (now derelict) lights on the old (now overgrown) parking lots.

The third place I stopped was Richardsons’ Lookout, not 5 minutes west of Garden Hill on the Ganaraska Road. It is small, no more than a nice viewing platform on the top of the hill. From the platform you can overlook the headwaters of the Ganny River and the Ganaraska Forest. Well, you could before all the trees around grew taller than the platform. Now it is a great station to view forest tree-tops. But you must be wondering: who was Richardson and what is the Ganaraska Forest. Oddly, the Ganaraska Conservation Area web page for Richardson’s Lookout does not provide a hint about who this person is. And of course, my curiousity led me down a rabbit hole.

To start, Richardson’s Lookout commemorates the contribution of Torontonian A. H. Richardson, a U of T academic, to the Ontario (Land) Conservation Movement during and after the 1940s. He is the little-known father of Ontario’s system of Conservation Authorities which has jurisdiction over each of the watershed areas in Ontario, the Ganaraska Watershed being one of them. Notably, in Ontario, Conservation Authorities are organized by the watershed that they service, not by municipal boundaries. My research tells me that “the conservation authority movement in Ontario is world renowned, and professionals and parliamentarians from other provinces, the United States, the United Kingdom and other parts of the world have come to study it” (The History of the Conservation Movement in Ontario to 1970, University of Toronto Press). It is a system which has been emulated in other provinces. The book, edited by A. H. Richardson and A. S. L. Barnes, is available in the TPL and on amazon – impressive, since it was published in 1974!

From the “Ganaraska Forest Conservation History”.

That the land north of Port Hope had become somewhat of a desert from erosion did not surprise me, but that Ganaraska was the first area to be tackled in a “test” of A. H. Richardson’s conservation ideas, did. Great Britain promised emigrants land grants in return for clearing the forests and of course Britain took the Canadian lumber as its prize. That the land was useless for agriculture and needed the trees to sustain it was something that was clear by the turn of the century, but it took a domino of events related to WWII, to cause this area (The Ganaraska watershed), to become important enough to do something about it.

One of the values of forested watersheds is their contribution toward reduction of flooding. With removal of the trees and the subsequent erosion of the land, there was no tree cover to stop erosion and mitigate spring flooding as the waters of the Ganny headed toward Lake Ontario. In fact Port Hope had been notorious for flooding as there is quite an elevation drop in the 3-4 kilometres near the mouth of the river—there is a 1883 newspaper article reporting a spring flood— and this was seen as a particularly big problem in the early 1940s, given the Cameco uranium refining facility, recently taken over by the Federal Government, and which was at the time an essential war-time business called Eldorado.

From the “Ganaraska Forest History”

You may recall that I mentioned the nuclear waste that is being cleaned up in and around Port Hope? The above caught my eye and as I researched further I found that the uranium used in the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was refined here in Port Hope. Which is why the big push on getting land conservation practices in place here, so that the refining plants, and its radioactive fuel facility would not be flooded.

The Conservation Authorities Act was passed in 1946, making possible the creation of the Ganaraska Forest.

But to get back to the other question: What is the Ganaraska Forest? Well, if you go hiking there, you would find hectare upon hectare of pine trees, neatly planted row after row, owned by the Conservation Authority and used for recreation – so its full of trails. The reforestation of vast areas of abandoned farmland was one the cornerstones of Richardson’s conservation plan.

By 1947 the Conservation Authority had purchased and planted over 1500 acres of land in the Ganaraska Forest. It was the first conservation effort in the Oak Ridges Moraine.

And Garden Hill Conservation Area? That was the first recreational conservation area created by the Ganaraska Conservation Authority in 1956. Today the GCA operates 9 conservation areas.

As a side note: The Ganaraska Watershed was not alone in Ontario with issues around erosion due to clear-cutting with the arrival of settlers. Conservation efforts were needed by most of the Conservation Authorities and you can see these “artificial forests” (i.e. row upon row of planted trees), in many areas of the province.

Ontario Conservation Authorities

If you would like another account of the history of the Ganaraska Watershed and the Richardson Lookout/Garden Hill Pond conservation areas 2 Old Guys walking (you guessed it right?) has a couple more blogs here and here.

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