The Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Areas is a volunteer organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the resources of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area (MJWA) including its provincially significant wetland and wildlife, along with meadows and forests. We work closely with Cataraqui Conservation, owner of the Wildlife Area.
This year marks the groups 25th anniversary. To commemorate this august and significant milestone, Cataraqui Conservation presents a series of interviews with individuals who have played key roles within the Friends over the past quarter century.
In this article, we chatted with former executive member Steve Lauridsen, who coincidentally lives about 500 metres south of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area in north end Brockville
Q – How long have you been involved with the Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area?
SL – I would say off and on around 20 years, maybe a little bit longer. See the thing is, some of the characters that have been involved with the Friends are fellas that I worked with from Dupont, guys like Don Wright and Colin Boag and a few others who have been instrumental in getting the Friends up and running all those years ago. I got involved through some of them and joined up and was a member for years. Later, I was eventually “coerced” into joining the executive and presided over the organization for four or five years.
Q – Why was there such a connection between the folks at Dupont and the Friends?
SL – It is a unique connection for sure. It seems because we had a large plant in the rural area, it’s actually in Maitland, which is a tiny little area surrounded by mostly agricultural land. So, we had this big plant employing 800 or so, in fact it was 900 when I started in 1976, and various groups of employees would be involved in all kinds of things in the community.
For example, there were a lot of volunteer firefighters from our plant. The Augusta Township Fire Department was so dependent on our employees that they probably had 1/3 or more of their volunteers coming from our plant. What I am getting at is there are some things that appeal to different groups in different ways.
There wasn’t an astounding number of folks from Dupont involved in the Mac Johnson, but certainly a number of the early Friends did come from there. Don was also on the board of directors of Cataraqui Conservation, and Colin Boag also spent a couple of terms as a member of the Full Authority Board. I was invited too, but respectfully declined, because at the time I was working full time in a management position at the site and just couldn’t free up the time.
Just a couple of quick things. I know in the days of Dupont, and Dupont doesn’t really exist in its former self anymore. But the company itself made some pretty interesting, both financial and in-kind donations to the conservation authority, both here and in Kingston as well.
I was part of a team that was awarded a significant award, quite a few years ago, probably back in 1998 or 1999, and the financial aspect of the award was to be donated to the organization of our choice within the community, so I chose the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area and there was sufficient money to build one of those fire pits with the seating all around it, so that was really kind of cool.
And then on the 50th anniversary of the plant site, which would have been in 2003, we planted 50 sugar maples on the property, and we did this for the City of Brockville, the town of Prescott, Augusta Township and I think a couple other places, but we placed the five here at Mac Johnson to represent the 50 years of the Maitland site, so they are planted in a circular area on the site.
Q – What was it about the Friends of Mac Johnson that impressed you to where you decided to get involved at a leadership level?
SL – Well I think it was the engagement with the community and just being part of some of the events we held and seeing the look on some of the faces of parents and children enjoying themselves, and seeing them have that sort of different experience right in their back yard, and so many people we would see come to the Wildlife Area for the first time at these events and say, ‘I couldn’t believe this exists within spitting distance of Brockville.’
To see these people engage in nature and being able to put snowshoes on for the first time, or a pair of cross-country skis or skate on the Back Pond or feed the swans, was great. And then we devised some activities that brought even more people out, like the dog sledders, and we even had them running with carts, which was just crazy. Those mushers are a hardy bunch.
One year, one of our members from MNR who is retired now, Jack Henry, he got us this pile of lumber and said, ‘here maybe we can make some bird houses.’ Well, what he meant was maybe you can, so I cut up all this lumber, sized it up, pre-drilled it, and took it out in kit form and had all these little kids nail together their own little birdhouse that they could take home. And the look on their faces when they’re hammering in the nails with two hands, the look of concentration and then the smile once they were done was pretty special.
So that’s what I enjoyed the most was the engagement with the community, with the people, and watching them watch their kids have lots of fun doing some things that I probably did too growing up as a kid in rural New Brunswick.
That was a big part of the attraction. Plus, the property is beautiful, and it was nice to do a few things to help preserve it, protect it and promote it.
Q – What was, is, and continues to be so special about the property itself and having it so close by and accessible to folks in the Brockville area?
SL – I am going to back up a minute to tell you that the whole reservoir was man made. There was a wetland there, and as you know, the conservation authorities, when they were established, one of their driving forces was to ensure that communities had protection against rapid flooding, and that can result from big rainfalls and so forth.
To do that, it was noted that the stream leading from this wetland area cut right through the City of Brockville, and when there was heavy rainfalls or huge snow melts, there would be flooding, flooded basements and other issues along this stream course getting down to the St. Lawrence River. So, they created this artificial reservoir and put this control gauge at the exit of it, so that created the large pond area.
It's not very deep, I think the water doesn’t exceed about six or eight feet and most of it is four feet or less. Nevertheless, it acts as a huge capacitor, but being shallow it also allows for tremendous waterfowl production: ducks and geese of course. And as they were trying to reintroduce the Trumpeter Swans back into eastern Ontario some of the folks put their hands up and said, well why not here at the conservation area in Brockville, as a site to try and rear some swans.
So, they built an enclosure and introduced a nesting pair, a mated pair and started with that. All these things transpired to make this man-made reservoir into a pretty ideal wildlife setting, and a natural area to set up a few trails for people to use all year-round, cross-country skiing, walking, hiking and snowshoeing and so forth.
Q – Why is it important to continue to fulfill the Friends mandate of preserving, protecting and promoting the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area?
SL – I guess the big reason is they aren’t making any more of this kind of space. And we have what we have, and these wetland areas are super critical to filtering rainwater, and filtering groundwater and making it usable for fish, wildlife and human consumption too. Without areas set aside from development and other activities, this would eventually get paved over and gone, and become a subdivision some day
We need these kinds of areas interspersed with where we live as humans. You gotta have it, so if you gotta have it, let’s make it open, accessible and useful, not to the detriment of the wildlife and the natural use of the facility, but to enhance people’s understanding of nature and being able to walk a trail, see a bird nest with baby birds, see the fish jump, to watch an osprey build and nest and raise youngsters. You’ve got a lot of things compacted into what 400 or 500 acres here.
Q – Do you see the importance of organizations such as the friends of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area becoming even more important as budgets for Conservation Authorities and other environmental groups continue to be squeezed?
SL – Governments switch their priorities following every election almost. So they want conservation authorities to do core things, and sometimes they will relax that and allow them to do other stuff. Ultimately looking after and enhancing some of these properties has, just with some of our provincial parks as well, fallen to ‘friends’ organizations; volunteers that have an attraction to and desire to help where they can, and raise some funds where they can, and sort of keep things on the rails.
And that’s what the Friends have done here at Mac Johnson - do the sorts of jobs that would never see the light of day in the conservation authority budget. Whether it’s enhancing the little tree nursery that is on the property, which is not in their mandate to raise trees, but we do. And we have made thousands of dollars rearing seedlings to trees and shrubs, sold them to the public and then turned that money back into various projects for the property itself. So for a quarter acre of space, which is next to nothing, we have raised thousands of dollars.
Q – Outside of the sense of satisfaction you get for the success of all the programs and initiatives undertaken by the Friends of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area, what else do you enjoy about being a member of the organization?
SL – Of course there has been some tremendous people that I have worked with over my years of being involved with the Friends organization. Like you said, people that I would have never otherwise would have met. Yes, they live in the same city, and Brockville is not very big, but people can still be close to one another even in a community like this, and not really know one another.
For more information about the Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area, visit https://cataraquiconservation.ca/pages/friends-mac-johnson.
Thank you Steve for sharing your stories, dedication and passion for the Friends and the preservation of the Wildlife Area.
Please stayed tuned for our last interview in this three-part Anniversary series coming next week.