By Kate Proctor
For most of my life, one of my favourite places has been, of all things, a county forest. The name “county forest” doesn’t really conjure up images of something very exotic, or even very interesting. But the Stephenson Tract, located at the corner of Morris Road and Clyde Line, like most wild spaces, is ever changing, never exactly the same no matter how many times I go there.
The Huron County Forests, which include over 1,600 acres, were part of the “Agreement Forest Program”, a collaboration of the province, municipalities, and local communities. The recent pandemic has seen a huge increase in the number of people finding solace and peace in our natural spaces, and the Stephenson Tract is no exception. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to forward-thinking people from the 1930s and 1940s, who saw the value in forests for environmental protection, education, and recreation. (https://www.huroncounty.ca/news/county-of-huron-forests-see-benefits-from-75-years-of-forest-conservation-programs).
Edmund Zavitz, who through his life held positions of Chief Forester of Ontario, deputy minister of forests, and director of reforestation, first raised the alarm about the harm deforestation was causing in Ontario. Zavitz dedicated his life to educating people about the importance of forests, and he led the way to developing conservation authorities, provincial nurseries, forestry stations, and by-laws protecting trees. “Two Billion Trees and Counting – the Legacy of Edmund Zavitz”, by John Bacher, details the story of Zavitz’s life, and includes stark pictures of the Ontario landscape prior to the conservation efforts that he led. The first tree by-law was passed in Huron County in 1947, and was supported by landowners and farmers who were concerned by soil erosion and water quality issues that had resulted from clear cutting and over-harvesting trees (https://www.huron county.ca /plandev/forestry-services).
One of 14 county forests, the Stephenson Tract has recently had a facelift, opening more of its 200 acres to local residents. The land was the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Neutral peoples, subject to the Dish with One Spoon wampum, under which multiple nations agreed to care for the land and resources by the Great Lakes in peace (County of Huron placard, Stephenson Tract, 2022).
Huron County purchased the land in 1951 with the goal of reforestation as it was unsuitable for agriculture. Over 140,000 trees, mostly Eastern White Pine, were planted between 1952 and 1966. The Sunshine Creek flows through the forest, and is named for a pioneer settlement that existed close by in the late 1800s. There still remains evidence along the trail of historic building foundations.
If you ever walk in a County Forest, you may notice the coniferous trees look like they were planted in a grid arrangement. This is part of a plan to provide a kind of nursery for deciduous trees to reestablish themselves. The White Pine that were originally planted were also managed and the branch pruning in the years after planting has resulted in valuable pine lumber with no knots. Money raised from timber sales from County Forests has been reinvested for further improvement of the properties.
The White Pines provided an opportunity for higher quality trees such as sugar maple, black walnut, and cherry to move in. One of the reasons the sugar maple is so common and well-known in our area is that it is able to regenerate in the shade, which many other species are unable to do. This transition is quite obvious in the Stephenson Tract – a variety of hard woods are now dominant, with just a few coniferous trees remaining from the original plantings.
Landowners across Huron County are attempting to salvage lumber from Ash trees that have been decimated by the European Ash Borer, a pest that has also plagued the County Forests. The Perth-Huron chapter of the Ontario Woodlot Association recently had a field day at the Stephenson Tract. Various methods of selective harvesting methods were demonstrated, including a local Amish father, son, and Norwegian Fjord Horse, who were able to skillfully skid felled logs out without damaging remaining trees. These selective cutting methods also help improve forest health by encouraging further tree regeneration.
The Stephenson Tract has trails on both sides of the Maitland River, accessible from Morris Road and the Clyde Line. 41580 Morris Road will take you to the newly upgraded trail, which has a number of placards along the trail, providing information about the history, natural environment, and development of the forest. Both trail sections have improved parking areas and are well used, but not crowded.
Whether you are into hiking, skiing, dog walking, geocaching, riding horses, fishing, or hunting - check out the County Forests. We can be thankful that a long history of preservation and conservation continue in Huron County and now nine of the f14 County Forests have trails — these are detailed in the Huron County Hiking Guide, which can be found at https://www.ontarioswestcoast.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/2021-HIKING-GUIDE-web-1.pdf. ◊
Photo Information: The Smith family from Huron East cut the ribbon to celebrate new signage honouring forests at the Stephenson Tract in Morris-Turnberry. ~Photo submitted by Dave Pullen