Dr. James McCowan

Throughout 2024, Cataraqui Conservation will be celebrating and commemorating its 60th anniversary. Among a number of special events and activities, we will also be publishing a series of articles featuring reminiscences from longtime current and former staff, management, board members and volunteers.

The following is an excerpt of an interview conducted with Cataraqui Conservation's first Board Chair Dr. James McCowan in 2009 as part of the Authority's history project. Dr. McCowan was an integral figure in the conservation movement and creation of the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority.

Cataraqui: What was the public perception off the word ‘conservation’ back in the 60s when all this started?

Dr. McCowan: It was very resource based, very economic based. The big issues for conservation authorities would include flood control and water management. Authorities had existed before Hurricane Hazel but the losses in property and lives in that event gave them much more prominence, much expansion. In rural areas, reforestation of marginal farm land was big, always uniform stands of the same species almost always under management agreements with the Department of Lands and Forests. In the public’s perception, recreation was important, more or less natural areas close to large populations. There were lots of other interests – such as preservation of hunting and fishing and opportunities, and of course, there were clubs devoted to that sort of thing as there still are. Again it had a consumption approach.

Many of the people who participated in forming this Authority had a much broader view than the general public. In particular, we understood the complexity of the environment (issues like species diversity, subtle chemical effects, waste management) and this gave us a value set that went far beyond concepts of resource exploitation. We adopted the osprey as the symbol of this Authority and I guess it still is. The reason is that the osprey had become rare at that time and it turned out to be one of those third or fourth order chemical effects that nobody could have foreseen. DDT accumulates in the fish without damaging the fish very much. The ospreys eat the fish and it doesn’t damage the ospreys very much. But it makes their egg shells thin. It has the same effect on herring gulls. And so they can’t raise a family; the eggs are crushed simply by sitting on them. The population of both herring gulls and ospreys went into steep decline. Pesticides were just becoming a public issue. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and there were huge controversies at the time because the industry made a lot off money out of selling those things and they sent people around saying how harmless all these things were and who cares about ospreys and herring gulls anyway. So for us, not only was the osprey a handsome symbol, but it exemplified two things that we wanted to add to those conservation goals I discussed earlier. One was that even creatures with no commercial use had a right to their place in the world. And the other was that their demise came by a very complex scientific mechanism that took a long time to discover.

The Cataraqui Authority, like no other at the time, had a concern for pollution and environmental degradation from chemical sources and an understanding that that was ultimately a much bigger issue than planting trees on marginal farmland or whatever. We were real leaders in that, leaders in the sense that we were among the very first formal groups to do something about that. We created on the very first day, among our advisory boards, an Environmental Science Advisory Board, chockfull of really good people who volunteered their time and advised us on issues of that sort. Its work contributed, as a matter of fact, to beginning to win over Earl McEwen to support the Authority. Earl, the power in Kingston Township in that period, had many doubts about the Authority. He’d been alienated very early from the Authority. However there was a service centre to be built on the 401 in Kingston Township, just west of Kingston, and their plan for how they were going to treat all the sewage from that property were really marginal and of course a lot of people lived downstream from that. Without any charge, a lot of our people, particularly Hugh Eisenhower, a chemist at DuPont, showed that there were economical treatment systems that would be much better. Everybody accepted that. There was never a mechanism before the Authority for a constructive alternative, or possibly even identifying the problem. That’s one of the distinguished things the Authority did.

Cataraqui: What do you think were the major influences on the formation of public opinion regarding conservation in the 60s?

Dr. McCowan: Hurricanes and particularly Hazel. The edge of Hazel had quite an effect, even in Kingston. Bath Road was closed by flooding at Little Cataraqui Creek. That was big.

Conservation areas were very popular. While provincial parks are great and serve their role, there was a need for something in between the city parks and Algonquin Park. There was a need for a regional place where you could get some exposure to the natural world but no one would pretend that it was a wilderness. The land around dams and possibly even lands required for the purpose could be developed in this way. Big urban authorities, Metro Toronto authority of course, Niagara, Upper Thames, Grand, and even some of the smaller ones, had created extremely popular conservation areas so, of course, we did that, but we weren’t leaders in that, we just did what authorities did. But that was certainly, in terms of what the public wanted and thought we should be doing, high on the list. Education came in too. We weren’t the leaders there. Toronto had a very successful conservation school. We created a much more low priced version at Gould Lake, but it worked very well. Dennis Reed was seconded from the school board to be the teacher in that school at the time.

Cataraqui: How did your own view of conservation evolve? What were the major influences to your thoughts?

Dr. McCowan: Personally? Well I grew up in Toronto but it was not the Toronto that’s there now. I grew up three blocks from Dufferin and Eglinton. If you started north from Dufferin and Eglinton now, you would go 12 km, maybe even more before you got out of urbanization, but in those days, I lived half a block north of Eglinton. I could walk two and a half blocks further north and be in a farm field. Then you could walk west of that farm field and down into a little valley called Parson’s Bush. I spent a lot of happy hours in Parson’s Bush, with my friends, with my folks, just exploring alone. It was just part of me walking in those places and seeing what happened to them. Parson’s Bush became a dump. They put a big pipe through the bottom to carry the creek and covered it with garbage. I still have a lot of the wildflowers from Parson’s Bush in my yard here in Kingston because my father was ahead of the garbage, picking up trilliums and hepaticas and Solomon’s seal and moving them down to my back yard. And so I had this sense that Ontario, at least southern Ontario, was in danger of losing the quality of life that I enjoyed. I came to Kingston when I was 25 or 26, and I could see that it would be relatively easy to preserve lands here, lands like Lemoine Point, Buells Creek, Gould Lake. Easy, and by the standards of the day, cheap, so that efforts to try and preserve for future generations what I had enjoyed as a boy, the opportunity for a city person to come in contact with the country regularly and often, was certainly one of my personal motivators.

I am professionally a chemist and an engineer and the whole issue of Silent Spring and pollution and all those kinds of things were huge to me. It seemed to me the world was completely unsustainable as it was being run then. I wanted to play a part in making people aware of what they were doing and so that was a big motivator. And I had a lot of good friends whose names are on that list I gave you, Gerry Dyer and Martin Edwards and so forth, were highly intelligent, politically aware, environmentally sensitive people who often had the same concerns as I did. We often talked about what can be done so the Authority became an idea for perhaps dealing with some of these issues and it has. It hasn’t done everything I’d hoped but it has done a lot of them.

Cataraqui: Would you agree that you folks were way ahead of your time in that regard?

Dr. McCowan: In this area . . . well on the issue of environmental pollution we were way ahead of our time in almost any area. Even Toronto didn’t have the same awareness about this or a concern about this. In terms of preserving natural areas for people to enjoy without going too far from the city, I don’t think we were ahead of our time. As I said earlier, a lot of conservation authorities had done some really great things in that regard, establishing conservation areas and they were popular. We were enthusiastic followers, but we weren’t leaders. But in our concern about how complex things were and how you shouldn’t just bull ahead for what seemed to be the economically desirable solution, I’m quite sure we were ahead of our times. A member of the Conservation Authorities Branch we worked for was scathing about the idea of having an environmental sciences advisory board. He couldn’t see the purpose in it and he couldn’t understand the name. He said nobody else will understand the name either, who the heck knew what environmental sciences are? And this is a professional person within the branch responsible for conservation authorities. To him it seemed ridiculous, it had nothing to do with conservation. And he wasn’t wrong that few people would understand.

Cataraqui: When did you first learn about conservation authorities?

Dr. McCowan: I don’t know how I first heard about them, but I know when I first learned about them. They had come into existence in 1946. They got a tremendous amount of favourable publicity at the time of (Hurricane) Hazel. So I was aware, and the people I was talking to here were aware, that conservation authorities might offer solutions to some of the things that concerned us here around Kingston. I went down and saw Herb Crown (a friend of my father and Director of the ARDA Branch in Ontario) He did indeed convince me that we could do a lot of the things we wanted to do with an authority. He introduced me to Alf Barnes who was Director of the Conservation Authorities Branch. Alf Barnes was enormously helpful and a whole slew of people who worked for him – Art Latornell, Johnny Murray and others – so I became very knowledgeable about authorities over the course of six months at the end of 1963. I’d only come to Kingston in 1962. In February of 1964 Gerry Dyer and I decided we were going to try and get an authority. There was a local group, the Association of Women Electors, trying to get a conservation authority for the Little Cataraqui Creek which we thought was well meant, but totally impractical. It was such a small area, it couldn’t possibly be financially viable. It only had two municipalities and it was only a small part of both of them. So we persuaded them to join us and look for something much bigger. Then we started asking our friends because we knew this couldn’t be a Kingston-led thing, it mustn’t be Kingston-dominated. We found like-minded people all over the place: Ken Buell in Brockville, Archdeacon Creegan in Gananoque, Bill Elliot in South Fredericksburg, Aldon Strong up in Westport and several others. These were all people who had done some quite neat things in their lives in related areas and who were enthusiastic about what we were doing. We had a meeting and printed a brochure. We divided up the councils and went off and visited them over the summer of 1964. In the fall, the province announced that the necessary number of municipalities had requested a meeting to decide about an authority so they scheduled that meeting. We needed a two-thirds majority; there were 30 voting members. 28 to 2 was the vote. Neither of the two were strongly opposed either, they probably just thought they wouldn’t get their money’s worth out of it. In December of 1964 the order in council was passed forming the Authority and on the first of February in 1965 we had our first meeting. It was almost exactly one year after Gerry and I said we would do something about getting an authority that we had one.

Cataraqui: Are you comfortable with the notion that you and Gerry Dyer fathered Cataraqui Conservation?

Dr. McCowan: Comfortable I am not. There is no doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t have happened the way it did without us, but there is also absolutely no doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t have happened just with us. All kinds of people got involved in this and they carried their own areas, their own councils, their own enthusiasms and without that it couldn’t be done. If it had been a couple of guys from Kingston out there telling the people in Kitley or South Fredericksburg what they should do, it wouldn’t fly at all. You needed people who were real believers, who took the time to find out what was going on, who got all enthusiastic themselves and that’s what made it work. Gerry and I lit the fuse but a whole lot of people made it happen.