Ferguson Forest Centre Saved

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The recent news that the Ferguson Forest Centre was threatened with closure reminded everyone how important an asset it is to this community. But this was not the first time the FFC nearly closed forever. As we mark the anniversary of amalgamations and the Common Sense Revolution of the Mike Harris Government, it’s timely also to remember the events of the 1990’s and the FFC.

The announcement, when it came, was like a bolt from the blue, bringing shock and dismay to the residents of North Grenville. Of course, North Grenville didn’t yet exist, for this was October, 1995, and the Ontario Government had released their first targets for closures and cuts under the Mike Harris “Common Sense Revolution”. The G. Howard Ferguson Forest Station, covering 1,100 acres in Oxford on Rideau Township, immediately north of the Town of Kemptville, was scheduled for closure by June of the next year.

The Forest Centre had been opened in 1945, when the Province bought the old Moore farm to establish both a mixed forest for lumber and other specialist work, and, most centrally, a tree seedling nursery to produce stock for reforestation efforts in Eastern Ontario. It had been found that much of the land in the region was susceptible to devastating loss of top soil once trees were removed by farmers. Areas such as the one now covered by Limerick Forest, soon became unable to sustain farms and settlement. Other places actually became sandy deserts, as the tree cover was removed. The role of the Forest Station in Kemptville was vital in reforestation, because, as one expert put it: “Indigenous species must be grown in the proper time zone and soil conditions. Seedlings from other areas are not satisfactory and do not grow well. The difference from one area to another is highly significant.”

In addition, the closure of the Ferguson Station would mean loss of jobs and a precious asset to the Oxford-on-Rideau Township area. It all seemed so unnecessary to local residents, workers and staff at the Station, local politicians and the forestry industry. Why shut down such a valuable resource. The Ministry of Natural Resources [MNR], who operated the Station, pointed to the one million dollars they lost every year at the Station. There were serious questions in the community about the efficiency of MNR operations, however. The Government were charging ten cents per tree to buyers, when it was calculated that the market would easily pay three times that amount.

The community mobilised and a Community Consortium was formed, representing the Eastern Ontario Model Forest, Oxford Township politicians, forestry companies and the local residents, to draw up a business plan to present to the Province. But meetings with the Minister in charge, and correspondence with the Premier’s office seemed to produce no response. No matter how viable the Consortium’s business plan was, the Province seemed determined to push through with the closure of the Station. Only strong representations from MPP’s and Oxford Council delayed the removal of equipment from the Station. But the MNR’s plan was to sell off all the two and three-year old trees and plough the rest of the twelve million seedlings into the ground. As it takes three years for seedlings to become available for harvesting, this would leave any potential buyer of the Station with no crop for three years after purchase. Clearly, the Province was not interested in maintaining the Station as a tree nursery, regardless of the essential role it played in reforestation of eastern Ontario.

Once again, the community mobilised. Urgent representations were being made to Oxford-on-Rideau politicians, and, in March, 1996, the Oxford Council wrote to the MNR about buying the Station at a minimal cost. The Station closed, as planned, in June, 1996, and the MNR started the process of selling the property. A public meeting was called at the North Grenville District High School to put pressure on the Government and inform the public. But, although more than seven hundred people had signed a petition supporting the Consortium’s efforts, only about seventy turned up for the meeting. What was worse, of the nine guest speakers booked to appear, five dropped out and another one arrived but refused to speak to the meeting. It seemed that the commercial sector was losing interest in the issue. Fortunately, it was decided at the meeting that night that volunteers would be asked to come to the Station and weed and irrigate the three million seedlings in order to save the crop for at least another year.

The Province now had to dispose of the property, and under Ontario law, the right of first refusal went to the Oxford Township. In July, MNR asked Oxford if they were interested. Oxford Reeve, Don Cameron and Councillor Owen Fitz’gerald argued in favour of Oxford expressing an interest in the purchase and Council agreed unanimously with this approach. Don Cameron informed MNR of Council’s decision and added a very significant statement. Oxford would not be changing the zoning on the land, no matter who bought it. It would remain agricultural land. This would obviously make the property harder to dispose of and limit MNR’s choices in the matter. This stand may well have saved the Station.

Weeding and irrigation continued to be provided by volunteers, organised by the Consortium. Local people came to help, as did people from Ottawa and surrounding areas. Buses of Mohawks arrived from Akwesasne to help in the work, and the extent of the voluntary effort must have come as a great source of encouragement to those working to save the Station. Ontario now decided it only wanted to sell about 360 acres of the Station, the part that was cultivated. 1997 arrived without any resolution to the issue. Ontario was asking Oxford Township to pay $1.2 million for the 360 acre package (including equipment, buildings and crops). Oxford still wanted all 1,100 acres but by May, the Township had accepted that only the 360 acres were available. They made an offer of $525,000 for the land, buildings, equipment and crops, and repeated the veiled threat that the land would never be rezoned by the township.

By August, 1997, an agreement was reached between Oxford Township and the MNR, and the Township set up an Advisory Board, a group of volunteers who would oversee the newly-acquired Station and try and build a solid economic foundation for future growth. Previous customers of the Forest Station committed to buying trees from the new facility and by January, 1998, half a million trees had already been sold, about half of the available stock for that year. The Township of North Grenville, in one of its first acts, agreed to hire a Manager to take over the day-to-day operation of the facility, and with the arrival of Ed Patchell, still working there today, a new era had arrived for the Station and a tremendous asset had been acquired by the new municipality. It would take a long time to get things on a secure footing. But as the headline said in March, 1998: the “Forest Station was Back in Business Again”.

We can only hope for a similar outcome this time.

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