By Mike Baker
When Barb Bolin joined the volunteer committee of the Haliburton Sculpture Forest more than two decades ago, she would never have imagined the site would eventually become one of Ontario’s top tourist destinations.
Beginning in earnest as a small community initiative in 2000, the vision for the Haliburton Sculpture Forest was clear – to bring more attention to the arts and create an easily accessible and inviting way for people to experience nature in our community. Starting out with three sculptures, installed within the forest inside Glebe Park, the site now boasts 37 hand-crafted sculptures and six “one-of-a-kind” benches created by professional artists from across the world.
“Our goal was to bring together art, nature and recreation,” Bolin told Dysart et al council back in December.
The inspiration for the site lies across the Atlantic – Grizedale Forest, a large national park tucked deep within England’s Lake District. The site is home to more than 100 sculptures and attracts over 150,000 visitors per year.
Over the past 20 years, the committee charged with the operation of the Haliburton Sculpture Forest has raised and invested north of $350,000 in an attempt to establish a similar phenomenon on this side of the pond. Those years of hard work appeared to pay off last year, as more people than ever before travelled up to Haliburton to check the forest out.
“This past summer and fall, people were motivated to find unique outdoor and cultural activities they could experience safely. That resulted in an explosion of social media attention, with people posting their experiences from the Haliburton Sculpture Forest,” Bolin said. “This resulted in, over a four month period, double the number of visitors, from 9,000 in 2019 to 18,000 this past summer.”
She added, “We estimate, for the whole year, we have had around 30,000 visitors.”
While the site garnered the attention of people on social media, it was also highlighted on several websites and blogs. The forest ranked fourth out of 20 sculpture gardens profiled by ToDoCanada.ca, and was the only site in Haliburton County included in the recently published book Unforgettable Ontario: 100 Destinations, written by Canadian author Noel Hudson. The forest was also ranked, by TripAdviser, as the second best attraction in Haliburton, behind only the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve.
Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod noted the forest was “a perfect mix of nature and heritage” and that it “has an abundance of beauty and meaning” while visiting Haliburton this past summer.
“One of the unique attractions of the sculpture forest is that it captures the interest of kids and adults alike, and has something for people from all walks of life and cultures,” Bolin said. “If you go for a walk in the summer, you can hear the forest being enjoyed in multiple languages. Because access is free, and pathways are fairly smooth and wide, it’s accessible both financially and physically.”
The increased popularity, however, is starting to take a toll. Some areas of the forest are requiring regular maintenance, due to the number of people walking the trails, and it’s becoming difficult for the volunteer group to keep up.
“ We have kept operational costs as low as possible, but we have realized this year the Haliburton Sculpture Forest has reached a tipping point. The dramatic increase in the number of visitors is causing wear and tear on pathways, and is impacting soil around the sculptures,” Bolin said. “The amount of litter has increased, and the number of guide maps needed has doubled.”
She continued, “Moving forward, we need to make greater investment to maintain the site to ensure a good visitor experience.”
Bolin said a new group, entitled Friends of the Haliburton Sculpture Forest, was being set up to promote the need for more community engagement and assistance in maintaining the park. Long-time committee members are also working alongside several other Glebe Park partners to establish what Bolin described as an endowment fund, which could over time turn into an annual source of funds to help offset the cost of running the forest.
Those costs will increase to $32,000 in 2021, Bolin expects. She asked Dysart et al council if they would consider making an annual contribution of $12,500 to the sculpture forest operation.
“Approximately 90 per cent of our funding is spent locally, and these funds go directly back into the local community,” Bolin said. “Over the past few years, Dysart has made significant investments into the downtown skate park, the arena, Head Lake Park, boat launches… We’re asking for a small annual investment from the municipality to maintain the forest as a cultural and tourism attraction.”
Ward 4 Coun. John Smith wondered if the township could provide some form of in-kind work on an ongoing basis to lower the dollar amount requested. He suggested municipal staff could help with landscaping and general maintenance, something Jim Blake, another member of the sculpture forest committee, indicated would be helpful.
Smith went on to suggest that the local sculpture forest committee should consider charging visitors both an entry fee and a parking fee, bringing up statistics from Grizedale Forest in England to drive home his point.
“At Grizedale, they charge 8 pounds per day for people to park – that works out to around $15. They also sell annual memberships for around $75. There are some creative approaches that others use to draw more pocket change,” Smith stated.
Bolin said the Haliburton Sculpture Forest has always been free to those interested in walking its trails, and that she would hate to ever see that change.
At a budget meeting earlier this month, council decided to approve $5,000 in in-kind work for the sculpture forest, to be carried out by township staff, while also writing a cheque for $7,500 to cover other costs. There was a consensus that this would be a one-time funding for now, and that council would converse with the forest committee ahead of next year’s budget to see how they’re doing financially.