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Conservation Groups Aim to Keep Townships Clean and

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large_pinnacle.jpgNature attracts thousands of people to the Townships every year. And an increasing number of groups are putting their efforts into making sure some of that pristine nature remains intact.

In 1987, the Ruiter Valley Land Trust, Quebec’s first such organization, was formed. Its prime concern at the time was wilderness protection and education. In October 2000, the Ruiter Valley Land Trust began envisioning a wider conservation project, examining the Sutton Mountains and their place in the larger Green Mountain chain of the Appalachians. From that developed the vision of a protected area spanning from Mount Orford in the north, through the Sutton Mountains southward to Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump in Vermont. The Appalachian Corridor (ACA) was born.

It’s an ambitious project, covering some 100,000 acres where large, non-fragmented forests can still be found. The ACA’s work is to develop a kind of patchwork of protected properties throughout the mountains, geographical stepping stones, allowing animals to travel north or south through the Appalachian Corridor. If global warming becomes a serious problem, it will give animals room to roam and adapt.

In the Townships, which are almost entirely privately-owned, the protection of large, untouched forests are vital to the continued survival of various species of plants and animals, such as the black bear and the bobcat, with garlic and ginseng, not to mention several varieties of birds, reptiles and amphibians. Lose the forest and you lose the wildlife, many species of which are listed as endangered or threatened.

One such rarity is the cougar. Cougars (Felis concolor) are native to much of North America, with the Eastern Cougar roaming the wilds of Quebec and New England. Due mainly to hunting, the species was thought to have disappeared in the latter half of the 19 th century.

But since 1955, wildlife officials have received calls of sightings across Quebec. Tracks, eyewitness accounts and even videotapes are fine, but scientists were seeking hard proof, such as a body, or at least a strand of identifiable DNA.

For the next fifty years, the cougar remained a mystery, leaving behind little more than the occasional track. In February, after five years of seeking out the elusive big cat in the Sutton Mountains, scientists were able to confirm the presence of cougars after testing strands of hair found at an observation station. Further testing is underway to determine if it is in fact the Eastern Cougar or a different variety that migrated into the region.

Since its modest beginnings under the wing of the Ruiter Valley Land Trust, the ACA has become a separate organization complete with charitable status, working with area organizations to implement the trans-border conservation strategy. Among its partners are Nature Conservancy Quebec, the Ruiter Valley Land Trust, the Parc de l’environnement naturel de Sutton, the Mount Pinnacle Land Trust, Alderbrooke Marsh Land Trust, Les Sentiers de l’Estrie, the Memphremagog Wetlands Foundation, and the Mount Echo Conservation Association. The ACA also meets annually with Vermont conservation groups to exchange ideas and information.

The ACA’s main objective is the protection of natural areas, either through their purchase or donation, or through the use of conservation servitudes. These servitudes on all or a part of an owner’s land ensure the future protection of the natural area, even if the land is sold to someone else.

The strategy has paid off. In the years leading up to the creation of the ACA, local groups had succeeded in protecting about 1,000 acres of wilderness. By 2004, that figure is close to 5,000 acres, making it one of the five largest protected areas in southwestern Quebec. This in a region which is 90 per cent privately owned.

The numbers jumped dramatically last summer with the announcement that paper-making giant Domtar had sold its 10,000 acre property in the Sutton Mountains to Nature Conservancy. With 60 square kilometres now protected, it has become the largest protected private natural area east of Alberta.

Managing such a large property is no simple task. This spring, complete ecological inventories of the protected properties began with the aim of producing a conservation and management plan in the spring of 2006. In the meantime, NCC and ACA are working on management guidelines for all properties in the region protected by NCC.

A provisional management committee has been set up in the region in order to identify issues and develop an action plan that encourages both nature conservation and the responsible employment of the land by residents and visitors.

While some areas will be off limits to hikers, access to some of the most spectacular areas will continue. The territory is part of the Appalachian Trail Network, known locally under the names Sentiers de l’Estrie and the Parc de l’environnement de Sutton. The ACA is also looking beyond the Sutton Mountains. Its objectives now also include a kind of buffer zone around the corridor, namely in the Missisquoi Valley and the Memphremagog watershed.

The ACA prides itself on taking a sound, scientific approach to conservation. Its findings and the information it provides landowners and conservation groups are based on the scientific analysis of the given property. While biologists do scientific inventories of the plant and animal species found there, forestry technicians develop forest management plans.

Now working full-time for the ACA are biologist Clement Robidoux and forestry technicians Gaetan Champagne and Dominic Diorio. When they’re not working directly with landowners, they are preparing awareness and training workshops. The team is overseen by a board of directors which includes president Nathalie Zinger, who is also director general of Heritage Montreal, and vice-president Marie-Jose Auclair.

Not content to rest on its laurels, the ACA and the conservation groups it works with are continuing their efforts to protect even more natural areas from development and other forms of destruction. A founding member of the ACA, Terri Monahan, is stepping down as director general to focus more time on her first love, as head of conservation work in the Appalachian Corridor for the ACA and NCC.

Further down the road, the ACA wants to share its expertise with other groups carrying out similar projects elsewhere in Quebec and Canada. An expertise that developed from the single idea of trying to save some of the nature that has made the Eastern Townships famous.

To learn more about the ACA and its partners, visit