By Jeff Tribe
Ducks Unlimited Canada conservationist volunteer Phil Holst’s excitement was infectious. Perched on a knoll, he eloquently shared his vision of a self-sustaining integrated wetland replacing marshy, marginal pasture with enhanced natural habitat promoting rich biodiversity: smaller water features leading through a silt capture pond on through two larger reservoirs, and back around a lone walnut tree into Big Creek as cold and cleaned underwater seepage.
In all honesty, we had simply been hoping to shoot a few ducks. But the logistical and financial support of several organizations coordinated through Holst’s conservationism connectivity elevated the idea of a mere pond into another realm.
We had embarked on a journey whose destination would ultimately deviate from our original intent but proved far more rewarding. As such, our experience would be a metaphor for Ducks Unlimited Canada itself. Beginning with the basic idea of encouraging waterfowl our way, we came instead to value much more highly the associated habitat improvement. If the odd duck got knocked down eventually, we’d consider it a bonus, but only as maybe 15 per cent of what had, for us, become an altered focus.
This story may also supply support for others considering a wetland project, whatever their own vision.
“When you’ve been a boy with nothing but a $10 bike, property looks pretty good,” my dad would smile. Harry Tribe experienced the worst of being an orphan. The long-dreamed-of purchase of a 90-acre parcel of Oxford County with wife Jessie represented physical and spiritual grounding for the former ward of the Children’s Aid Society.
Like our family, the farm was well-loved but far from perfect. Joking, my sister Lahring would say she wanted the “rocky hills and boggy hollows” as her share of the inheritance, to which I’d reply: “But I want something too.”
Lahring moved on to a director’s position in a multinational publishing firm while her little brother at least managed to keep family on a farm, continuing to define not only where we came from, but the rural values and lifestyle we wanted to continue.
Nephew Nick Sweazey, a high hoe operator with Steve Watts Excavation, suggested enhancing that lifestyle with a weekend “family rate” job designed to attract migratory waterfowl.
“Just for the heck of it,” I responded, considering an investment potentially including grandkid pond- hockey and fishing, “I’m going to give Ducks Unlimited (DU) a call and see if there’s anything they can do.”
Ultimately, DU’s participation proved the vanguard for several organizations. Having since accepted the position of chair of DU Canada’s conservation committee, Holst’s background includes fishing, hunting, trapping and logging, time as a singer, dancer, model and actor, followed by founding a successful landscaping business in his late 20s. Business sense, negotiation, design and construction experience combined with a passion for conservation have contributed to Holst willingly mentoring or advocating for landowners through what can be a confusing or intimidating process for the past dozen years.
“It’s not that they don’t believe in a project, it’s just most people may not be in the place to comfortably navigate its requirements on their own.”
Holst’s approach through over 40 completed conservation enhance-ments in his home area and close to another 20 under various stages of consideration is making cost-effective use of funding while working respectfully within a landowner’s operation and business plan. He believes a wetland project, for example, can increase productivity while reducing area by improving adjoining drainage, providing additional topsoil, helping control erosion, enhancing pollination, holding and slowly releasing runoff from extreme weather events and improving the underlying water table. Ideally speaking, making marginal ground, unsuitable for corn or soybean production, more valuable by returning it to its original function.
“That is something that resonates with a majority of landowners.”
Holst takes seriously the responsibility of identifying areas of a property unlikely to be altered after a project is completed. He would not consider projects in the middle of an otherwise productive 100-acre field for example, preferring instead marginal, peripheral areas.
“Not one that interferes or reduces a landowner’s ability to be productive,” he says.
Where possible, Holst expands scope or diversity by tapping into additional funding opportunities. In our case, Holst sourced supplemental financing from Stewardship Oxford and the Clean Water Program, Oxford to round out a 1.4 acre wetland supported by in total, 8.9 acres of upland habitat. Holst also connected the Long Point Region Conservation Authority (LPRCA) for a native species tree and shrub-planting.
We were required to sign a document Holst views as a gentleman’s agreement, which practically speaking, assesses the sincerity of a landowner’s long-term commitment to a project. This links to DU Canada’s willingness to commit valuable time and financial resources. He emphasized there is no form of legal title or interference with sale. DU is not about to tell landowners whether they can hunt or not, or how they use their land, Holst continued. The organization may contact the landowner in order to assess a project’s development over time.
“That still requires the landowner’s permission.”
Through our community having its equivalent of Mabel’s Grill, we caught wind of those who considered signing a DU Canada project agreement could lower the value of a farm, while others figured it might increase it for the right person. We hope our determination to continue a cash-poor tradition of farming onto the next generation, as well as respect for our parents’ love for the property, makes the discussion moot. The wetland’s main features – not ponds as much as habitat-enriching, multi-depth reservoirs designed to rise and fall in level – were excavated during the winter. The land quickly healed, naturalizing with vegetation’s return that spring, enhanced via the LPRCA planting.
The project was nominated and ultimately chosen for the the 2019 Oxford County Stewardship Award which recognizes voluntary efforts to protect the county’s natural environment utilizing the Clean Water Program. Within the context of bringing attention to past and ongoing progressive and sustainable efforts from the agricultural land ownership community, and a team effort supported by many individuals within several organizations, we were grateful to participate in the initiative.
I had not requested Watts Excavation be awarded our project’s contract, but be allowed to bid on it. Its success resulted in Holst training a new conservation excavation team, a second project on one of Watts’ properties, and an employee investigating the potential for a third on a family farm neighbouring ours.
Given soaring land values, committing to a long-term conservation zone is a decision which must be weighed carefully. But it has been our experience that landowners, understanding the potential benefits and process, would consider strategically improving their own selected piece of agriculturally-marginal ground, but simply may not understand the best possible and most cost-effective way to do so.
We had no clue a single phone call would lead to design, financial and very importantly, logistical support from four separate organizations. A landowner can still figure on writing a cheque, but without those contributions, we would have ended up with a pond instead of being able to see that simple concept rise to a whole other level. We would strongly suggest anyone considering their own project begin by reaching out to their own stewardship council, conservation authority, clean water program or conservation organization such as Ducks Unlimited Canada.
We figured we lost the pasture equivalency of our lawn in exchange for a beautiful wetland, an attached external passive watering tank for our beef cattle, along with the aforementioned recreational opportunities. Well beyond that, it’s hard to put a precise price on an attempt to honour our parents’ memory through a memorial project respecting and hopefully continuing their legacy of stewardship along with ownership.
There is also the purely selfish, butt-covering notion that this is considered an environmentally-friendly initiative. Should we be fortunate to live another decade or more, our grandchildren may well challenge us on what we were doing when climate change became undeniable. Whether humans have caused or contributed to it or not isn’t as pertinent as the thought that however it got rolling, we’d better try and do something about it.
Our wetland isn’t going to reverse the problem, but we’d like to believe it updates mom and dad’s legacy for environmental respect within our family with the realization each of us is going to have to take meaningful action, large and small, to counter a huge problem.
Quite frankly, we also love the view each and every time we walk out our back door, regardless of the fact we’ve shot zero ducks to date. A flock of geese touching down was cause for celebration, as was the arrival of a pair of nesting mallards, joyful frog song, dancing fireflies, and a whole host of bugs and critters we have no idea of identifying, flourishing in enhanced habitat – but are pretty happy to think they are.
Theoretically, our farm remains agri-business and the great majority of the property is dedicated to productive agriculture. However, within that model, the wetland remains a very special little corner where Mother Nature enjoys her share. ◊