by Christine Hanrahan
Larose Forest is situated about 60 kilometres east of Ottawa in the United Counties of Prescott-Russell (UCPR), near the towns of Limoges and Bourget. At roughly 10,540 hectares (26,000 acres) it is the largest forest in this part of eastern Ontario. Various inventories over the last few years have revealed a tremendous variety of flora and fauna, underscoring the important role this forest plays for wildlife. For this reason alone, it is worthy of our attention. But the forest has many dimensions, it is also a working forest, an outdoor classroom, and a place for hiking, biking, and other activities. It is gradually becoming a destination for birdwatchers, hikers, naturalists and those interested in outdoor recreation. This report updates my last article on Larose Forest (Hanrahan 2004) and provides information on the outcome of the 2004 OMB decision, and a number of other Larose related topics that have arisen, some new and some new-to-me.
When a local group, FrancoscÚnie Inc. proposed a theatrical pageant/theme park called L'Úcho d'un peuple, for Larose Forest, there was widespread concern that the forest's conservation values would be destroyed. Accordingly a number of people came together in an attempt to stop this project. Under the banner of The Friends of Larose Forest, they sought help from many quarters including the OFNC. As a last measure, they went to the OMB to appeal the UCPR Official Plan (OP) Amendment No. 4 which would allow this development. Despite what many thought, the OMB appeal was not against FrancoscÚnie Inc. nor was there ever any doubt in anyone's mind that the project itself was an interesting and innovative event that deserved to be staged but not in Larose Forest!
The development proposal and the OMB
In 2002 FrancoscÚnie Inc. put forth their plans for Larose Forest, at the same time applying to the UCPR for an amendment to the OP and to the City of Clarence-Rockland for a similar amendment, to allow this development. In March 2003, the UCPR approved the OP Amendment but Clarence-Rockland made no decision either way. Interestingly, at about this time UCPR also produced a map showing the project site as non-significant woodland (unforested) when in fact it is as thickly treed as the surrounding woodland deemed significant. How this "slip-up" happened has not been clearly explained. It should also be noted that Larose Forest is zoned Conservation land by the City of Clarence-Rockland within whose boundaries the largest portion of the forest lies.
The development proponents initially asked for 142 hectares (or just over 353 acres) in Larose Forest to stage their pageant. However, under public pressure, they modified their application, asking for 73 hectares (180 acres), of which, they said, only 11 hectares (27 acres) would be developed for Phase 1 (the pageant). In fact their plans called for a 6 hectare (15 acre) parking lot, a 6 hectare (15 acre) staging site, a 10 hectare (25 acre) septic bed, and 34 hectare (85 acre) theme park. Equally worrying was the precedent setting nature of this development, should it go ahead.
Tourism revenue is highly sought after and not just in Prescott-Russell, where it was hoped that L'Úcho d'un peuple would draw thousands of tourists (and their money) to the area. If this meant opening the forest to any development so be it, seemed to be the prevailing attitude at the time. Certainly a decision in favour of FrancoscÚnie Inc. would give the green light for other proposals. According to an Ottawa Citizen story of February 5, 2003, FrancoscÚnie Inc. was convinced that their project would bring an annual income of $6 million to the area economy, which seemed then, and seems now, quite astounding. For more about the proposed development see Hanrahan (2004) or check out The Larose Forest: History and Ecology.
Evidence of how much FrancoscÚnie Inc. wanted the Larose site is borne out by the revelation that over 20 other sites were offered but all were turned down. Some of these sites already had the necessary infrastructure in place, and several were along the Ottawa River, making them ideal for this particular project. It was these conflicting views, the desire to develop the forest and the desire to see it preserved, that led to the lengthy and costly OMB hearing.
Update on the OMB
Initially expected to take only two weeks, the hearing began in December 2003, resumed in February 2004 for a short period and was completed in March 2004. The Friends of Larose Forest (referred to hereafter as the appellants) did a sterling job rounding up witnesses, preparing mountains of evidence, and hiring a lawyer to present their case for preserving the forest. The OFNC participated in this process through the Conservation Committee. Although the OMB is supposed to be impartial and unbiased, the presiding judge left no doubt which side he preferred. When the decision was finally handed down in December 2004 it was in favour of FrancoscÚnie Inc.
The ruling makes interesting if disturbing reading. The language is extreme, vindictive, and pejorative. Throughout, those presenting on behalf of FrancoscÚnie Inc. are treated respectfully, while both the appellants and their witnesses are castigated. See the entire ruling.
However, this wasn't the end of the story. Shortly after FrancoscÚnie Inc. won the OMB, they served notice to the appellants that they intended to seek a Motion for Costs, this despite having almost all of their legal and other services provided pro bono. Equally upsetting and unforgivable was their truly nasty vilification in the local media, of those trying to save Larose. Having won their case, one would think some mercy would be shown! In January 2005, the amount sought by FrancoscÚnie Inc. was revealed as $137,000 (read the decision). In the 51 page report accompanying the Motion, the language from the OMB judge escalated calling the appellants irrelevant, vexatious and frivolous. They were taken to task for supposedly asking questions that had already been decided by the Board, and for having witnesses who presented "irrelevant" testimony. How fair was it for the OMB judge to agree with and assign this Motion for Costs against ordinary citizens doing the job the United Counties should have been doing in the first place, ensuring protection of their natural heritage?
The appellants hired another lawyer and appealed the Motion and eventually, the costs were reduced from $137,000 to $15,000. Nonetheless, this on top of their legal costs amounted to approximately $75,000. The OFNC made a contribution towards the costs incurred by the Friends of Larose, as did some very generous individuals. The development proponents were well-funded with access to numerous professional resources. Throughout the process, they were also strengthened by a parallel defence mounted at public cost by the UCPR. The appellants had no access to such resources professional or financial and have borne the bulk of the costs.
While awaiting the OMB decision, FrancoscÚnie Inc. finally opted for one of the 20 alternate out of forest sites, located at a tourist farm near Cassleman. It has all the necessary infrastructure in place and is easily accessible from Highway 417. Despite this, L'Úcho d'un peuple, quickly fell onto hard times. Numerous problems beset the project including lower attendance than anticipated, financial difficulties, and loss of key people on the board, all leading to FrancoscÚnie Inc. seeking bankruptcy protection in 2005 (well-documented in local newspapers including the Ottawa Citizen). However, they have received support from local politicians and others and are set to stage their third season in 2006. Were it not for the above noted personal attacks through the media, one could feel a degree of sympathy for the group.
Update on flora and faunaIn a Citizen article dated April 2, 2003, one of the founding members of FrancoscÚnie Inc. was quoted as saying "this is an artificial forest and there are almost no animals." We knew this to be false our bird list was already quite substantial and a number of interesting and regionally significant vascular plants had recently been identified, but clearly more work had to be done to refute those who believed the forest nearly devoid of life. There is still a lot of work left in documenting the forest's biodiversity, but we have made a very good beginning.
The first Larose Christmas Bird Count held in January 2005 and organized by Jacques Bouvier, promises to be a good addition to area CBC's. As word spreads more people will participate in the count which covers an area greater than the forest itself.
In addition to butterflies, a variety of other insects and spiders have been found including Blister Beetles, Tiger Beetles, Scarab Beetles, Milkweed Bugs and Beetles, Bush Katydids, Cecropia Moths, Hummingbird Moths, Milkweed Tussock Moths, Megachilid Bees, Predacious Diving Beetles, Backswimmers, Ambush Bugs, Widow Skimmers, Chalk-fronted Skimmers, Bluets, River Jewelwings, Ebony Jewelwings, Snowfleas, various wasps, Argiope Spiders, Wolf Spiders and many, many others. We need people familiar with the various families to help out with an inventory of these creatures (see note about BioBlitz below).
Reptiles and amphibians
New forestry inititatives for Larose
Larose Forest has always been and continues to be, a working forest. Horse logging occurred in the area until the sad and untimely death of the last horse logger in late 2004. In 2005 South Nation Conservation Authority (SNCA) took over forestry management in Larose with responsibility for logging operations. At present SNCA in cooperation with UCPR, is developing a 5-year operating plan and a 20-year management plan. Two public meetings to review the plans were held in December 2005 and January 2006. The SNCA website says they are "committed to the concept of sustainable development and an ecosystem-based approach in the planning and managing of its forest resources." SNCA follows provincial guidelines used on Crown Lands. With respect to managing for wildlife values this means that they will leave 6 snags (wildlife trees) and 7-8 mast trees per hectare. I was told that their forest technicians are trained to look for and note the location of stick nests. Depending on the species using the nests, buffer zones will be implemented. Fairly common species such as Broad-winged Hawks will not be granted the same priority as Northern Goshawk or Red-shouldered Hawk for example. According to one of the foresters with SNCA, the area surrounding a known goshawk nest would be excluded from harvesting operations from March 1 to July 31. Additionally, a minimum crown closure of 70% would be retained. Furthermore, the guidelines call for a 20 metre reserve on inactive nests in case they are used in the future. Guidelines for other considerations such as buffer zones around water bodies and riparian areas are also addressed. While the forestry plans recognize the value of snags, mast trees, and nesting raptors, I would like to see management plans consider habitat for songbirds and other wildlife dependent on the forest. Conversations with SNCA foresters have been encouraging thus far, and they have also expressed a desire to protect locations of rare and significant species of flora and fauna. One can only hope that the reality is as good as the theory.
Recreation in Larose Forest
Several recreational pursuits have become increasingly visible and more organized in Larose Forest. Ski Larose now has 18 kilometres of groomed trails, maps, toilet facilities and a website. Sled dog teams are nothing new in Larose, but a new organization, Mush Larose, has assumed responsibility for maintaining the winter trails for this increasingly popular pursuit. Of course snowmobiling is the most visible winter activity and the Eastern Ontario chapter of the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) maintains many groomed trails in Larose, more of which are now patrolled. ATVs have always used the forest, especially on weekends. However, they have now joined the ranks of the above organized pursuits under the banner of the Ontario Federation of All Terrain Vehicle Clubs and some trails now sport their small metal signs. Whether this means that ATV use will be more closely monitored remains to be seen (but I hope so). One good thing that might arise from this is the pressure to keep them off of trails posted "No Motor Vehicles Allowed," which in the past they've blithely ignored. As stated before (Hanrahan 2004), the forest is big enough that many recreational pursuits can be followed without undue conflict, particularly if a modicum of respect is used.
At one time the settlement of Grant was a thriving little community with cheese factory, post office, houses, school and church. Today, you would be hard pressed to find any signs of human habitation, apart from the small Grant Cemetery and foundations of church and school. Larose Forest now covers the site, a fascinating example of nature reclaiming her own, with help, of course, from the tree planters. Local historian, Alexandra de Quimper, has written a book about Grant and conducts guided tours in Larose, during which she brings the community back to life. The OFNC held its first successful "Walk-&-Talk" tour with Alexandra last year and a second one on May 10th.
To the best of my knowledge little or no long-term research has been done in Larose in the past. The UCPR appears open to the promotion of scientific research in Larose, and it will be interesting to see what direction, if any, this takes in the near future. Stay tuned! Breeding birds have been well surveyed over the last five years (2001-2005) as part of the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas project (2001-2005). In 1989 a Forest Bird Monitoring Program (FBMP) site was set up in the forest and monitored variably until recent years. Now, consistent monitoring is being done. As noted above, a vascular plant survey was done during the summer of 2004. Joyce and Allan Reddoch have monitored the status of orchid colonies in Larose for over 20 years, Therefore, some interesting and important work has certainly been done. During the fall of 2005, two Carleton University Students examined the vulnerability of Larose Forest to continued development pressures, using this forest as an example of how forests throughout Ontario are not adequately protected (Murphy and Sine 2005). There is certainly scope for many and varied projects in Larose and perhaps local universities will become more involved in the future.
Larose Forest BioBlitz
A BioBlitz is a quick inventory or assessment of the variety of flora and fauna found in a defined area over a 24 hour period. The first BioBlitz in the Ottawa area was held in Vincent Massey Park, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden and surrounding areas in 1997 (Vitols and Hamilton).
This year, 2006, a BioBlitz will be held in Larose Forest, organized by the Prescott-Russell Stewardship Council. Because so little work has been done in Larose, particularly as noted above, on insects, spiders, bryophytes, fungi, etc. this will be a really exciting day of discovery. Details have not been finalized yet, but it will most likely be held in mid-June. We're looking for volunteers with a good knowledge of flora and fauna. Please consider joining in and helping us discover more about this remarkable forest. More information is on the OFNC website, or you can contact me at email@example.com for updates. [See Larose Forest Bioblitz 2006]
Until Larose Forest gains some form of strong protected status through the UCPR Official Plan, it will be vulnerable to development pressures. Several times in recent months staff and politicians have called the forest "a jewel". The UCPR website calls the forest " a unique resource" and states that it is important to ensure that "according to its mission, the Larose Forest gains a key place which will permit the promotion of the Larose Forest as being the natural reserve of the region of Prescott and Russell." The wording is a bit ambiguous, nevertheless it seems the United Counties recognize the natural heritage value of Larose. However, the new Official Plan, now up for review, needs to state explicitly that the forest will be permanently protected. No ambiguities in wording. Ghislaine Rozon, the driving force behind the move to preserve and protect the forest from day one, has been working on sensible recommendations for the new UCPR Official Plan. Let us hope that the United Counties listen.
Acknowledgements. Many thanks to all the people who have worked so hard to protect Larose Forest over the last 4 years, particularly the appellants in the OMB hearing who endured financial loss for a cause they believed in, and special thanks to Ghislaine Rozon for dedication to the cause and for never saying "I can't".