Ganaraska Forest greenbelt conservation history

Ganaraska Forest


Ganaraska History
V.B. Blake
Pioneer Historian
E. J. Zavitz
Chief of Reforestation
A.H. Richardson
Dr. R.C. Wallace "Wallace of Queen's"
G.M. Wrong
History Prof./Author
Lois James
hampion of the Rouge








A man doesn’t plant a tree
for himself.
He plants it for posterity.

Alexander Smith,
Scottish Poet (1830-1867)

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Hurt not the earth,
neither the sea,
nor the trees.

Revelation 7:3








As the poet said,
"only God can make a tree" -
probably because it's so hard
 to figure out how to get
the bark on. 

Woody Allen






Of all who plant
And tend a crop
The man of God
And the man of the forest
Dedicate their lives
To a certain faith
In an everlasting harvest
To be enjoyed
In some future time.







The tree which moves some
to tears of joy is
in the eyes of others
only a green thing that
 stands in the way.

William Blake

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Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets.
To plant a pine, one need only
own a shovel

Aldo Leopold






The first principle to go by
is to just sit and let
the land speak to you

 Henry Kock










Someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.

Warren Buffett











Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.

Chinese Proverb









"My son, I admonish you to cherish the little waters, for these replenish the mighty rivers that nourish our thirsty land."

Samuel Woodstock**

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River valley development is the wise use of all the natural resources of a river valley for all the people… for all time.

Samuel Woodstock *

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The great ecosystems are like
complex tapestries --
a million complicated threads, interwoven, make up
the whole picture.

Gerald Durrell

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Conservation with its abundance  of good things,
is rooted in the future.

Samuel Woodstock **

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**Samuel Woodstock was a fictitious character and alias used by A. H. Richardson. First published in "Our Valley" (TRCA - 1950s - later A.H. Richardson "Conservation by the People:The History of The Conservation Movement in Ontario to 1970" (1974)













"History matters to us as individuals because it locates us in time and place and gives meaning to our lives. It matters to us as citizens because through an ordering of the past into discernible patterns, we can better understand how past choices have present day consequences. What we remember, what we stress as significant, what we omit from our past, and what we don’t know or understand about the stories of our fellow inhabitants, is critical to our ability to endure as a collectivity... The past is part of our present and thereby part of our future…"

Thomas S. Axworthy, 1997

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1942 Mapping - Proposed Ganaraska Forest

 (The Ganaraska Watershed,
A.H. Richardson)





















Welcome to homepage      

from dust bowl and wasteland to
Canada's land mark forest
(the beginning of world's largest greenbelt)

"Forests and other natural features symbolize Canada.
 From the earliest times, the inhabitants of this land have relied
 heavily on the forest... forests are integral to our environment, our economy, our culture and our history. They are instrumental
 in the realization of our aspirations as a society and as a nation."

 National Forest Strategy 1998-2003,
Canadian Forest Service

Origin of Ganaraska - historically Ganaraskè (Fr.) - name of early Iroquoian (Cayuga) village which once existed by the mouth of the Ganaraska River (now Port Hope, Ontario) as shown on early 17C French maps - meaning "the spawning place".  True to its name, Ganaraska Forest helped spawn the conservation movement in Canada.

The establishment of Ganaraska Forest represents one of the most successful conservation projects ever undertaken in Canada. 

From its beginning as a barren wasteland area, it was in essence the historical birthplace of the world's largest greenbelt (Ontario's Greenbelt) - established many years before the greenbelt term was commonly used.

Today, Ganaraska Forest is an important part of the greenbelt. "As the world’s largest greenbelt at 1.8 million acres... Ontario’s Greenbelt is an area of permanently protected green space, farmland, forests, wetlands and watersheds ... ".  (Ontario Ministry Municipal Affairs and Housing)

From the 1940's, Ganaraska Forest was also the catalyst which led to the creation of the first conservation authorities, the first conservation legislation, the conservation model used for the protection of other watershed areas and established the means of acquiring conservation lands.

The Ganaraska Watershed report was published in 1944 and sponsored by two levels of government.  It was the first comprehensive document in Canada to lay a greenbelt foundation with its components.

"... the Ganaraska Watershed area is small; but its importance is greater than its size. The area was deliberately chosen from the older settlement areas of Eastern Canada to demonstrate what intensive surveys and plans for future work should aim at.  It was undertaken not as a routine or maintenance survey, but as a much needed piece  of research in Canadian conservation literature."

Dr. Robert C. Wallace, Principal of Queen's University, December 21, 1943
as quoted in Introduction of The Ganaraska Watershed report,
A.H. Richardson, 1944 p. vi

The Ganaraska Forest project was also the first major reforestation program on the Oak Ridges Moraine. The moraine (ORM) is a distinct natural landform and a  hydrologically sensitive glacial ridge of great ecological significance adjacent to the most populated area of Canada (over 9 million people). 

"The Ganaraska Authority was the first to undertake afforestation on a large scale. Some 20,000 acres, largely on the interlobate moraine (the Oak Ridges Moraine) and consisting of many plantable areas and woodlands was proposed as the area for the Ganaraska Forest..."

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Critical Review
 of Historical and Current Tree Planting Programs
 on Private Lands in Ontario,
2001 p. 10

Without Ganaraska Forest as the pilot project and the creation of the first conservation authorities in Ontario, Ontario's Greenbelt now composed of over 1.8 million acres, would probably not have succeeded.

"In 1941, conservationists from across the province met in Guelph to address the extensive damage to southern Ontario's environment. Great tracts of land had been ruined through over cutting of the forest and through faulty farming practices. The conference, under the leadership of J.D. Thomas, chose the Ganaraska watershed, one of the most damaged in the province, as its pilot project.  Over the next few years they worked to restore the natural values of the watershed, mostly by planting trees. Its restoration marked the beginning of the conservation authorities of Ontario. The Conservation Authorities Act was passed in 1946. Over the next four decades the Ganaraska watershed had become one of the largest forested areas of southern Ontario with two million trees planted."

Jump up Sauriol, Charles (1984). Tales of the Don.  pp. 164, 165
Toronto, ON: Natural heritage/Natural History Inc.

About an hour's drive north-east of Toronto, Ganaraska Forest is southern Ontario's largest continuous block of forest consisting of 11,000 acres (45 km2) and located within the Counties of Northumberland, Peterborough, Kawartha Lakes (Victoria) and the Region of Durham.

The Public Meeting of the Port Hope Historical Society (PHHS - formerly East Durham) on March 18, 2009 drew much public attention and had one of the best turnouts ever. The strong attendance was probably in response to the Press Release written by Ron Getz, PHHS President which read: 

“We tend to take the Ganaraska Forest and the millions of evergreens on the Great Pine Ridge (Oak Ridges Moraine) for granted. There are still many in the old United Counties, however, who remember when the area north of Port Hope was a dust bowl of eroding hills and abandoned farms. The massive reforestation undertaken in the late Forties and early Fifties transformed our landscape. One of the visionary pioneers who worked behind the scenes was a shy, self-effacing historian and conservationist named Verschoyle Benson Blake. Blake bought a farm northwest of Garden Hill in 1926, and began tree-planting experiments. When Dr. A. H. Richardson laid the groundwork for the Forest, he hired Vers Blake as lead historian for the report that provided the impetus for the project. Blake’s contribution to conservation and the preservation of Ontario’s history remains an untold story…”

Ron Getz, President, Port Hope Historical Society
"Story of pioneering conservationist to be told"
Northumberland Today, March 12, 2009, p. 2:1

Sahara of the North

As early as 1871, in a letter to the Premier of Ontario, Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada  wrote “we are recklessly destroying the timber of Canada, and there is scarcely a possibility of replacing it.”  The late Henry Kock of the University of Guelph Arboretum later noted the spread of civilization around the world was too often and too closely followed by the spread of deserts and that history showed vast areas in Canada were headed along the same road.

Prior to World War II, the northern Ganaraska region was seen as "the Sahara of the North". Desertified and almost stripped of its trees, the landscape had become barren and unproductive. Countless farms were left abandoned as a result of extensive deforestation and poor agricultural practices.

Ganaraska wasteland area before World War II (above)
Photo courtesy of John
Bacher and Ed Borczon

The early timber barons had left huge barren wasteland areas.  The first settlers which followed viewed the forests as obstacles to be cleared for farmland. Topsoil was blown or washed away.

Flooding downstream in Port Hope was a regular event before Ganaraska Forest was established.

Floodwaters through downtown Walton Street, Port Hope
(a regular event before Ganaraska Forest was established -
The Ganaraska Watershed Report, 1944, p. 71

By the late 1800s, Southern Ontario was one of the most populated and densely settled areas in Canada -- its resources unwisely exploited. For perhaps the first time in Canadian history, Canada turned back at the brink -- through a remarkable effort at reforestation, forest management, and other soil conservation efforts -- beginning in the Ganaraska watershed.

In 1942, the Ganaraska Forest idea was born which would become the first act of landscape planning in Ontario in that it considered natural features and processes in their entirety.  By 2005, Ontario's greenbelt was formed - now the world's largest greenbelt.

Beyond Site: The Ganaraska Forest Reborn

“One of the most remarkable things about the Ganaraska Forest is that its story begins with the first act of landscape planning in Ontario that looked beyond site to consider natural features and processes in their entirety… 

In 1942, after several decades of surveying, documenting, and disseminating information about the spread of wastelands in Southern Ontario, and the need for a comprehensive reforestation program, a report on the Ganaraska Watershed was issued by the Government of Ontario, Department of Lands and Forests (which would later become the Ministry of Natural Resources). Co-authored by V.B. Blake, a local historian, and A.H. Richardson, a colleague of Zavitz’s from the Department of Lands and Forests, the report proposed a large-scale reforestation program. It also included a call for new land-use management strategies led by government agencies. This would be the birth of the idea for conservation authorities in Ontario, and the first example of land-use planning that considered natural features and processes above property lines and political boundaries.”

 Karen May, Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation
Ground: Landscape Architect Quarterly,
Ontario Association of Landscape Architects, Fall 2013

The first comprehensive conservation strategy

The establishment of Ganaraska Forest in the 1940’s was a major impetus in the conservation movement of Canada - jointly sponsored by two levels of government.  It had far reaching effects and was studied around the world.

In 1942, the Canadian Government (Federal Committee on Reconstruction) appointed a sub-committee on the Conservation and Development of Natural Resources. The Ganaraska watershed was selected as the initial test area.

Headed by Dr. R.C. Wallace (Principal of Queen's University), the sub-committee was directed to "consider and recommend…. the policy and programme appropriate to the most effective conservation and maximum future development of the natural resources of the Dominion of Canada." Without such unprecedented commitment by the federal level of government in the early 1940's, Ganaraska Forest would probably never have been established (especially at a time when all resources were mandated to the war effort abroad).

As a result, Ontario became the first province to develop a comprehensive conservation strategy -- The Ganaraska Watershed (1944) report was the first conservation study of its kind in Canada. Under the joint auspices of the Federal (Dominion of Canada) and Provincial (Ontario) Governments during World War II, the Ganaraska study provided a new direction and transformed the whole approach to conservation. (See: The Ganaraska Watershed Report, 1944)

The (Ganaraska) document proved to be monumental in terms of the resurgence of the conservation movement in Canada generally, and in Ontario in particular...  Entitled The Ganaraska Survey, the report was unlike any other ever produced by the Ontario government, and represented a significant departure from the way in which resources were traditionally regarded in Ontario."

Steve Jobbitt, Recivilizing the Land: Conservation and
Postwar Reconstruction in Ontario, 1939-1961, (2001) p.74)

Ganaraska Forest -- the first greenbelt

The establishment of Ganaraska Forest during the 1940's represented the foundation of the greenbelt movement in Ontario (and Canada) and also set in motion a series of events which eventually led to the creation of the largest greenbelt in the world (Ontario's Greenbelt, 2005 - composed of more than 1.8 million acres).

The Ganaraska project demonstrated the benefits of conservation and showed for the first time how resources (water, land, forests, wildlife and recreation) be considered together through a coordinated programme of resource management.

The Ganaraska region was also the first watershed to demonstrate new concepts like the ecosystem approach and watershed based conservation planning (based on natural rather than political boundaries).

The Ganaraska Watershed  (1944) report also led to the passing of the first Conservation Authorities Act in 1946 and the creation of first conservation authorities in Ontario.  The CA Act was significant within the broad context of Canadian environmental history in that it marked a revival of state-sponsored conservation in Canada.

The Ganaraska survey was the model used by conservation authorities in other areas.

"1946: The Conservation Authorities Act was passed, enabling municipalities to apply for the establishment of conservation authorities in their areas. The Ganaraska Survey was intended to be the model for the study on which each authority was to base its work."

Greening Our Watersheds - Revitalization Strategies 2002 Ch. 5 p.76 by Etobicoke and Mimico Creek Watersheds Task Force
- The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

The recommendations in The Ganaraska Watershed  (1944) report formed a foundation for the conservation authority movement in Ontario and have been studied around the world:

"The conservation authority movement in Ontario is world renowned, and professionals and parliamentarians from other provinces, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other parts of the world have come to study it."

A.H. Richardson in Conservation by the People (1974)

Ganaraska during WWII

It was highly unusual to see in the middle of World War II that around the same time all resources in Canada were legislated to go toward the war effort abroad, the Ganaraska Forest project was sponsored on the homefront by the Dominion of Canada and the provincial governments.

In exactly the same year the Ganaraska project was commenced, Eldorado Nuclear in nearby flood-prone Port Hope was acquired in 1942 by the Canadian Government and made into a Crown Corporation. Eldorado had an important role (refined uranium) in the Manhattan Project which in essence ended the war (atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

This theory supports a Ganaraska link and that the interest of the Canadian government in two major projects at the same time during a world war, in a relatively small township on Canadian soil (in an area where up to the war, it had shown no interest) was more than a co-incidence. At the time, Eldorado was classified top secret and the Town of Port Hope had no knowledge - but it did experience regular flooding events.  See history.

Ganaraska Forest -- a conservation model for Rouge National Urban Park

The Ganaraska Watershed Report, 1943 was the conservation model which would be used in many other watersheds - including the Rouge watershed (R.D.H.P Conservation Report, 1956). 

In recent years, this large area is now known as Rouge National Urban Park -- one of the largest urban wilderness parks in the world. 

"While primarily a study in land use with plans for the rehabilitation of this particular watershed during the post-war period, the Ganaraska Report would become the model for future conservation studies throughout the Province of Ontario."

(John C. Carter, Ontario Conservation Authorities:
Their Heritage Resources and Museums,
Ontario History
Volume XCIV, No. 1, Spring 2002)

Great Conservation Pioneers

Dr. Edmund J. Zavitz

E. J. Zavitz was the first Chief of Reforestation in Ontario (The Ganaraska Report (1944) p.xii). From a early report published in 1908, more than any other man, Zavitz is given credit for expressing the first conservation and reforestation vision for the Ganaraska and Oak Ridges Moraine area:

"Extending through Northumberland and Durham Counties is a sand formation locally known as the "Oak Ridge" or "Pine Ridge"... It is safe to say that seventy-five percent is wholly unfit for successful farming... These areas should be preserved for the people of Ontario as recreation grounds for all time to come... The policy of putting these lands under forest management has many arguments in its favour... It will pay as a financial investment; assist in insuring a wood supply; protect the headwaters of streams; provide breeding ground for wild game; provide object lessons in forestry; and prevent citizens from developing under conditions which can end only in failure."

Report on the Reforestation of Waste Lands in Southern Ontario, 1908
E.J. Zavitz, published by
Ontario Department of Agriculture, Toronto

More than any other man, it was also Zavitz who planted the seeds of a modern day greenbelt plan more than a century ago - as shown in the above 1908 report.

A. H. Richardson - Forester

Upon his graduation in 1920, A. H. Richardson became the long-time assistant to Dr. Zavitz (above noted) in the Forestry Branch of the Department of Lands and Forests.

Under the mentoring and direction of Zavitz, Richardson became known as a skilled communicator when it came to building public awareness of forestry matters. Richardson also helped to coordinate the practical end of the government's treeplanting efforts.

A.H. Richardson was appointed by the Ontario Government during WW2 to organize the Ganaraska study. 

V.B. Blake - Pioneer Historian

Well respected as a pioneer historian, historic preservationist and archivist. 

Verschoyle Blake  arrived in the Ganaraska region (north of Port Hope) in 1926 and was the only area resident on the original Ganaraska survey team. Blake became known as “the quiet conservationist” and was very knowledgeable about history, particularly in the Ganaraska area.

V.B. Blake was also certainly influenced by two of the greatest academic scholars of the time, his uncle, G. M. Wrong (1860-1948) - University of Toronto History Professor and Author and Dr. R.C. Wallace (1881-1955) - Principal of Queen's University.

Appointed by the Federal Government, Dr. Wallace wrote the Introduction of the Ganaraska Watershed report and concluded it's content had far-reaching effects which would be:

"...of general significance for the conservation and rehabilitation of all our resources throughout Canada." (A. H. Richardson, Conservation by the People: The History of the Conservation Movement in Ontario to 1970, (1974)

Blake had a key role in the Ganaraska Forest project (he helped compile it) and was the only Ganaraska area resident on the initial Ganaraska survey team. 

Blake's strong interest also included Canada's built heritage and he was a founding member of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario in 1933, along with C. Vincent Massey.  Both men had country properties along the Ganaraska River, named Ardfree and Batterwood respectively. Blake also worked on the St Lawrence Seaway project.  During the 1950's, V.B. Blake also helped organize the Provincial Plaques Program in Ontario.

V.B. Blake also served on the Advisory Committees for both Upper Canada Village and Black Creek Pioneer Village and was also instrumental in establishing Barnum House in Grafton as a museum (the primary reason  the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario was first established in 1933). In 1959, Barnum House became a National Historic Site of Canada.  

Blake worked as a historian with the Government of Ontario and joined the Ontario Department of Planning and Development, Conservation Branch in 1944.

V.B Blake became Supervisor of the Historical section of the Conservation Authorities Branch when it  began publishing historical studies for various geographically defined conservation areas across Ontario - including the Ganaraska Watershed report (1944).

"Historian Verschoyle B. Blake was added to the survey team. It was Blake’s keen sense of the worth of history and his philosophy of how the conservation ethic could be supported through an understanding of the past that resulted in the inclusion of an introductory historical chapter in the Ganaraska study. Subsequent conservation reports by the government would also include accounts of the historical background of each watershed area studied..."

 John C. Carter, Ontario Conservation Authorities:
Their Heritage Resources and Museums,
Ontario History/Volume XCIV, No. 1, Spring 2002

Blake showed the natural linkage between history and conservation in his work - for the first time the general public (and public officials) not only found his historical material interesting but were better able to understand the technical recommendations of the conservation reports themselves. 

Later, other conservation reports also opened with Blake's historical backdrops and were essentially the first major blueprints for the  respective watersheds from which most modern day conservation achievements can be traced.

Today, Blake is still regarded as the “Dean of Local Historians” and fellow historians agree “there hasn’t been anybody like him since…” (according to Carl Thorpe).  

Blake's work remains a goldmine of information to this day.  As a pioneer historian and the only Ganaraska area resident on the original Ganaraska survey team, Verschoyle Benson Blake is remembered for his extraordinary work in heritage and conservation. 

"We need something more than archives to tell us how
our forefathers lived...
  to read this in books and
pictures is a good thing,
but it is infinitely better
to preserve some of the things themselves.
To let these be lost through our indifference is to

deprive future generations of a heritage
to which they are entitled."

Verschoyle B. Blake as quoted in Conservation by the People:
The History of the Conservation Movement
in Ontario to 1970, by A.H. Richardson
 (1974) p. 103

Canada's first greenbelt

The establishment of Ganaraska Forest in 1947 was Canada's first greenbelt model and marked the beginning of the greenbelt movement in Canada.

History shows the Ganaraska Forest plan was the first blueprint and laid the earliest foundation for the world's largest greenbelt - officially known today as Ontario's Greenbelt (2005) -- by more than half a century.

Greenbelts serve a major conservation role with many benefits:  "The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that the natural capital of Ontario’s Greenbelt is worth $2.6 billion annually. Part of this amount is generated by the services rendered by the Greenbelt’s forests and wetlands, which clean the water supply, enhance air quality and support flood control. These ecosystems act as habitat for wildlife, including the pollinators that maintain and enhance the annual crops of fruit and vegetables. The ecosystems in the Greenbelt also help mitigate climate change by storing over 102 million tonnes of carbon in its wetlands, forests and agricultural lands."  (Ontario's Greenbelt connects Field to Fork Alternatives Journal, Joanne Tacorda, March 18, 2013)

The Ganaraska report (1944) was the first study to include the components of a modern day greenbelt plan (forests, agricultural and recreational lands and wetlands). A key recommendation in the 1944 report was the establishment of a 20,000 acre forest (later named Ganaraska Forest.

Other greenbelt projects followed the Ganaraska model in Canada - but none preceded it.

Name of Greenbelt

Year est'd.
Ganaraska Forest 1947
Ottawa Greenbelt 1956
Agricultural Land Reserve in B.C. 1973
Niagara Escarpment Plan - preliminary 1978
Vancouver's Green Zone  1996
Ontario's Greenbelt 2005
Montréal - announced 2013
Québec City - announced 2013

In January, 2013, the Ontario Government announced additional public lands in the river valleys of  S. Ontario will become part of a new Urban River Valley designation in Ontario's Greenbelt - increasing the size of the largest greenbelt in the world.  

“The Greenbelt… is a key part in our government’s efforts to protect
 the environment and combat climate change.  In those terms,
 the Greenbelt is one of the greatest contributions
our generation has made to the future of Ontario.”

Minister Linda Jeffrey of the Ministry of
 Municipal Affairs and Housing

Leader in Conservation  

The Ganaraska Forest project in the 1940's changed the face of the conservation movement in Canada. Historically, no other conservation project has had such far reaching effects.

The Ganaraska project during WW II set in motion a series of events which not only resulted in the establishment of Ganaraska Forest, but also laid the groundwork for the creation of 36 conservation authorities, the first conservation legislation and more recently, the establishment of Canada's first national urban park (Rouge Park) and the world’s largest greenbelt comprised of 1.8 million acres (Ontario’s Greenbelt, 2005). 

Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities own and operate over 500 conservation areas and collectively are among the largest landowners in Canada with a total land area of 145,357 hectares (359,185 acres).

Drought, deserts and floods are conditions of the past with 43 percent of the Ganaraska watershed now in forest cover. As a result of reforestation, Ganaraska River has experienced even better results than originally predicted (including reduced flash runoff, river and streams flowing more evenly, increasing water storage in headwater aquifers, reduced spring flooding and summer low-flow conditions).

Without the ability of the Authorities to acquire and manage public lands and the legislation giving them the legal power to do so (two of the key recommendations in The Ganaraska Watershed report, 1944), the conservation areas would probably not exist today.

"Ontario went on to become a leader in conservation in Canada, spurred largely by the fact that southern Ontario is one of the few areas in Canada that by the late 1800s was so densely settled and its resources so unwisely exploited that conditions matched those that inspired the rise of the conservation movement south of the border.  While much had been done, earlier approaches were no longer adequate to both halt the deterioration of the environment and the loss of resources, and at the same time start to reverse the trend of loss and decline. Blow sands and windswept farm land were an increasingly obvious problem. Springtime flooding and summertime interruptions in waterflow. The result of the increase in population and of encroachment on the flood plains of creeks and rivers were also becoming pressing issues..." (Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters)

History is important. Given its unique historic role in Canada's conservation movement, one tied to important events in Canadian history, Ganaraska Forest is recognized as one of the most successful conservation projects ever undertaken.

"The Ganaraska Forest is at a pivotal moment in its history. 
 The largest block of continuous forest in Southern Ontario,
 it is a huge expanse of 11,000 acres that represents
one of  
the most successful conservation projects
ever undertaken in central Canada."

Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority, 2011

"Cathedral of the Pines"

The late Judge Richard Lovekin at a
Ganaraska Forest ceremony in 1994


Researcher: M. Martin
Member - Port Hope Historical Society
Supporter - Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority


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