Barry Penhale’s Ontario: Guardians of Our Forest Heritage

Barry Penhale’s Ontario: Guardians of Our Forest Heritage
Above Photo: This red oak in Toronto is over 250 years old and truly a sight to behold—a treasure of our natural heritage. (Photo- Edith George)
From the OHS Bulletin:
Barry Penhale,
August 2020

It was during the 1960s when Professor Douglas Pimlott, a University of Toronto biologist, became my go-to person for expertise on a range of issues involving the great outdoors. The forests of Algonquin Park were often the subject of environmentally sensitive assignments I was involved with as a broadcaster, and I frequently grappled with the need for information that found me out of my depth. Pimlott was always just a phone call away at his workplace in Ontario’s oldest park and always came through with the authoritative comments I had come to expect of him. His important research within Algonquin began in the late 1950s and his monumental efforts to preserve the natural elements of the park, which sprang from his in-depth studies of wolves, certainly deserve to be better recognized. Though not trained as a forester, he truly cared for trees and was especially knowledgeable when it came to the forests of Algonquin. I am pleased to include him along with others who have done much to honour and preserve Ontario’s forest heritage.

When initially planning this article, a valued friend of many years, Dave Lemkay, and a newer friend, Edith George, came to mind immediately. Both individuals attach immense importance to trees and the invaluable natural history they represent. In Dave’s case, one is presented with a career and now avocation that reaches back approximately 50 years. His work first came to my attention when he managed the Canadian Forestry Association in Ottawa. He was also the creative hand responsible for the annual designation of “The Forest Capital of Canada” the now involves communities and regions across the country. One of his foremost interests is the history of our forest industry, going back 200 years to the time of squared timber rafts on the Ottawa River. With few equals when it comes to recreating past history, Dave was successful in bringing the restored 25-ton W.D. Stalker Warping Tug Boat, to his beloved Ottawa Valley by masterminding a daunting transportation experience that began on the Lynn River in Simcoe, Ontario, where the tug was berthed, and getting it safely to Pembroke. Among other appearances, the “Alligator” went on to play a prominent role in steam flotillas from Bristol, Quebec, to Arnprior, Ontario. Since that time, a replica was built by the late Dr. Bill Burwell of Renfrew and is now part of a permanent display at the Shaw Woods Outdoor Education Centre near Pembroke.

I must confess to being one of Dave Lemkay’s many unabashed admirers and continue to marvel at his boundless energy, inexhaustible enthusiasm, and never-ending association with trees. It was Dave who delivered Canadian maple trees to Juno Beach for the 50th anniversary of D -Day in I994. The same person was also a player on Monty MacDonald’s 2018 Vimy Oaks Legacy team. They marked the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge by shipping several hundred acorns to Vimy, France, to ultimately be planted there. These were no ordinary acorns, having been harvested from a stand of 100-year-old oak trees that were planted in 1918 through the foresight of a returning Canadian soldier, Leslie Miller, who had gleaned them from the devastated Vimy site. One dare not say finally but “presently” Dave serves as Chair of the Algonquin Forestry Board of Directors and is Vice-Chair of the Forest History Society of Ontario. One wonders where his forestry pathways will take him next!

Dave Lemkay was both MC and auctioneer on the occasion of a fundraiser gala to support the J. Michael Waldram Forest Bursary held at the Rideau Club, Ottawa, in 2006. (Photo: Mark Kulas).

The younger Edith George will need time to rack up Dave Lemkay’s mileage, but there is little doubt that she is currently on a roll. If her name seems familiar, it will be due to media attention she received as protector of Toronto’s oldest tree. This champion of natural history has made many sacrifices to focus so heavily on saving an iconic majestic red oak, believed to be between 250 and 300 years old. As reported in the December 15, 2019, issue of the Toronto Star, Edith’s battle to protect her towering, centuries-old North York neighbour has been going on for 14 years. Fortunately, Edith George’s tireless efforts seem to be heading in a promising direction and public protection could well be imminent. In 2018, Toronto City Council passed a motion, authorizing staff to make a conditional offer on at least half the purchase price of the home and yard on which the mighty oak stands. The well-known gardener and columnist Mark Cullen and his wife gave the fundraising a generous boost with their offer of $100,000, on the condition that other public donors fulfill the rest of the funding requirements and that the City of Toronto preserves and protects the tree. Both the Cullens and Edith George envision a parkette dedicated to First Nations, a fitting legacy, as the tree has stood firmly for centuries on what was an early Indigenous trail. Edith George continues to keep the pressure on City Hall, while at the same time confidently looking ahead to a time not too distant when visitors to her city will get to enjoy “a natural tree museum”.

I must also recognize the fantastic work of E.J. “Edmund” Zavitz. This early forester, originally from the Niagara region, was a remarkable visionary whose efforts made it possible for us to enjoy such commonly taken-for-granted natural treasures as the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Ganaraska Watershed today. It can be said that Zavitz, more than any other single individual, led the charge that changed outdated attitudes, practices, and regulations in forestry. It is largely thanks to his advocacy that the first forestry station in Canada was established near St. Williams, Ontario, in 1908. Zavitz was the second Provincial Forester for Ontario (1917–26), the very first to hold the title being Dr. Judson F. Clark (1904–06). In 1926, Zavitz was appointed Deputy Minister of Forestry but a change in government resulted in his demotion in 1934, at which time he resumed the title of Provincial Forester until 1941. Edmund Zavitz and his pioneering work has been well-documented by the St. Catharine’s-based environmentalist John Bacher in his book Two Billion Trees and Counting.

Fortunately, Zavitz was to be followed in time by the likes of Herb Richardson, Charles Sauriol, Paul Aird, Ken Armson, Adolph “Dolph” Wynia, Paul Masterson, Jim Coates, and a long line of other dedicated forestry officials. Toronto teacher Herb Richardson, during a most productive lifetime (1890–1971), became an important Ontario conservationist long before our present Green movement. From his early work in a canvas-roofed forestry station in the bush, Richardson went on to establish Scout Forestry camps and played a major role in the creation of the Conservation Authorities of Ontario.

One cannot pay tribute to important guardians of our forests without acknowledging the role played by Kenneth Armson, now retired but forever identified with major advances made while serving as Chief Forester and Executive Coordinator for Ontario’s forestry program. This well-known expert in his field was the third and last Provincial Forester for Ontario (1986–89). The position no longer exists. A prolific author and contributor to countless publications, including historical accounts of Ontario’s forests, Ken is the founder of the Forest History Society of Ontario. A valued member of the OHS, Ken’s face is often visible at provincial conferences.

A stand of virgin pine east of Huntsville was reported some winters ago by Natural Resources Information Officer Ross Beagan. He described specimens about 300 years old and more than 150 feet tall, commenting that one giant tree was likely a seedling around the time LaSalle and Marquette & Joliet were engaged in their exploration of the Great Lakes Region in the late 1600s. I would suggest that’s history and reason enough to begin looking at our tree canopy differently and with greater appreciation. We need not all be trained foresters to play key roles as stewards of our forest heritage. Edith George’s inspiring example is proof positive that individual citizens as guardians of even a single tree can truly make a difference!