By Angelica Ingram
Feb. 7 2017
With its lush forests pristine lakes network of trails and wildlife habitat it may not come as a surprise to many that the region encompassing Haliburton County was recently designated an exceptional area for environmental education by the United Nations.
The UN chose Peterborough and its surrounding region which includes Kawartha Lakes Haliburton County four First Nations communities and Peterborough County as a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development.
The honour is due to a large network of environmental organizations centres and institutions in the area say some of the county’s leaders in environmentalism and education.
Heather Reid worked at U-Links a centre for community based research located in Minden and partnered with Trent University from 2005 to 2013 spending the last five as the director.
She cites the centre and those who founded it as one of the leaders in environmental education that is taking place in the region.
“The concept of U-Links started through a course that was offered at Trent called the bioregionalism course” said Reid.
The community engagement course which took place in Haliburton ran for 10 years until 1999 and two professors from the university who ran the course John Wadland and Tom Whillans had a passion for community based education said Reid.
“The concept was they were going to look at a bioregion and they chose Haliburton” she said. “They wanted to look at how do social environmental cultural and economical factors play out in a bio region.”
Whillans said a number of factors went into the decision to offer the course in Haliburton including ties to the university however the desire to conduct research in the county was significantly tied to the waterway system.
“Haliburton is the headwaters of the waterway that goes through Peterborough and we were interested in having a look at the whole waterway and trying to understand how it could be planned for environmentally in a sustainable way” he said. “When we got looking at the whole waterway we realized that the part that was the least well understood was the Haliburton Highlands.”
Whillans said both he and Wadland had a history of coming to Haliburton in their youth. He believes U-Links has evolved into a great source of two-way learning and has been beneficial to both Trent and the Highlands.
“If you look around the world there are not very many examples of universities developing programs that serve rural areas” he said. “We’ve got an example in Haliburton that stands out.”
U-Links continues to operate in the area to this day conducting research projects with various partners including multiple levels of government local organizations and community groups.
Reid is now the operations director at Abbey Gardens a local food initiative where she continues to work alongside Trent University and U-Links on research projects including one that is taking place across Canada.
Former chairwoman of the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust Sheila Ziman has also worked with U-Links and has nothing but praise for the quality of research they bring to the Highlands.
“For me the kudos goes to Trent University” said Ziman. “We don’t have a university here so it’s just wonderful to have access to students at Trent and Fleming College as well.”
For Ziman the resource of U-Links at her fingertips was instrumental in some of the work the land trust has done including in-depth research on ecosystem services as well as a report on water quality and shoreline erosion following the Minden flood in 2013.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for us” she said.
“We’re a little not-for-profit we don’t have an army of people working at our office … so it was an opportunity for us to strengthen our sustainability and work towards accomplishing some of our goals in terms of research educational programming and also stewardship of our properties.”
The land trust is an environmental organization focused on protecting and preserving the natural heritage of Haliburton County.
Research projects conducted by U-Links including those done for the Land Trust are all available online which can be beneficial to other environmental organizations as well.
“It was certainly a value to the land trust but also to the whole community” said Ziman pointing to the water quality report as an example.
Ziman is aware of other projects going on in conjunction with U-Links including an upcoming one involving the Haliburton Highlands Field Naturalists and the Municipality of Minden Hills.
Outside of U-Links a lot of educational programming is also taking place through outdoors centres camps environmental organizations and municipal levels of government.
Barrie Martin is the owner/operator of Yours Outdoors an experiential tourism company and a retired biologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources.
A former employee at the Frost Centre where he worked in tourism and nature programming Martin says the county has a long history of environmental learning.
“Quite a few years ago when I was at the Frost Centre we got together with all the outdoor centres there was seven at the time” said Martin.
The groups compared notes did joint marketing and worked together towards a common goal of promoting the area for environmental education opportunities he said.
On top of that there are approximately 20 summer camps in the area also providing outdoor learning he said playing a significant part of the environmental puzzle.
“When you look at that as an industry it’s pretty significant” said Martin. “I’m not sure there’s any other area in Ontario where you have that concentration of outdoor centres and camps.”
Reid believes the area offers a plethora of opportunity for environmental learning pointing to camps as one example.
“I think with the level of activity of so many for-profit and not-for-profit activities up here it’s quite amazing” she said.
“We’re a very active community in terms of people enjoying the outdoors but also wanting to answer some of the critical questions about what our activity does.”
She points to the growing popularity of experiential tourism as a push to educate tourists and visitors to the area.
“It’s a real opportunity to teach as well as to entertain.”
Those who have been working in the environmental industry for decades are thrilled to see the area get the recognition they believe it so rightly deserves.
“There’s a lot of organizations that have been plugging away for years doing environmental education” said Ziman.