Volume 29 - Number 12 - Thursday, March 13, 1997

Mont St. Hilaire:
Striking a blance between research and recreation

by Alexandra Stikeman

At the beginning of the 17th century, McGill's Gault Estate at Mont St. Hilaire was surrounded by a vast primeval landscape. Nearly 400 years later, the mountain is host to one of the last two remnants of old growth forest in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Its exceptional biological diversity and richness in minerals has made it an ideal place for teaching and research. Half of the mountain is preserved for research, and 77 graduate theses and over 200 publications have been produced by students and faculty from Montreal's four universities based on projects conducted at Mont St. Hilaire. The other half is open to the 100,000 members of the public who visit every year.

Now, however, with McGill's recent budget cuts and limited resources, respecting the interests of both researchers and visitors, as well as protecting the area's natural integrity, has put the mountain at the heart of debates in conservation biology.

On his death in 1958, textile magnate Andrew Hamilton Gault bequeathed the property, which he called "my most treasured possession," to McGill. He expressed the hope in his will that "its beauties and amenities may be preserved for all time to come, not only in the immediate interests of the university itself, but through its corridors of learning, as a great heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of youth of Canada."

In keeping with his wishes, a Nature Conservation Centre was established in 1972 on the public side as a non-profit organization dedicated to public education. The centre leases the property from McGill and carries out its own programs under specified restrictions.

Then, in 1978, the mountain was designated as Canada's first Biosphere Reserve within the UNESCO Man and Biosphere program--a program which seeks to preserve representative examples of all the world's ecosytems. Biosphere reserves are representations of undisturbed natural habitats which adjoin populated areas.

The University is currently revising Mont St. Hilaire's master plan, which provides the necessary guidelines and regulations needed for the overall management of the mountain. The master plan was last revised in 1984, and since then a number of issues have arisen with respect to its proper use and management.

Professor Martin Lechowicz of the biology department holds the position of Director of the Gault Estate and has been involved closely with the mountain since the late '70s.

"Since 1984, we've learned a lot more about what it means to preserve the integrity of an ecosystem, so it is timely to incorporate that new scientific knowledge in a new revision," he says. Lechowicz first became involved in the mountain when the first outbreak of gypsy moths in 1977 and 1978 resulted in the defoliation of 259 hectares of the forest. "There was a lot of local and University concern about the outbreak," he notes.

And there is still a strong community interest in the mountain, as evidenced by the large number of visitors, especially during the summer months. The Nature Centre depends on the money generated from public fees to support itself as a private entity--in fact its director has plans to expand public access.

Says Nature Centre director Kees Vanderheyden, "We need the money to survive. In order to make money, you have to attract people to the mountain."

According to Vanderheyden, building a boardwalk around the main lake would allow "more direct access to nature" for the elderly and the handicapped. In addition, he would like to see the century-old trail that goes around the mountain, and which cuts through the research side, open to more visitors year round.

But the current level of traffic is already a concern for researchers, and they say increasing the number of visitors would be disastrous.

"A boardwalk around the lake would be extremely detrimental to our work," insists Murray Humphries, a PhD student in biology studying chipmunks on the mountain. "A large percentage of our chipmunks live along the lakeshore."

In addition, future access to the research side, although limited to only one trail, might entice curious hikers to wander off trail and create even larger disturbances to the ecosystem.

The University has decided to work towards a compromise that will benefit both sides. "We've done a lot of science, but we haven't done a lot of social science," acknowledges Lechowicz. "My larger concern right now is to keep [the trail] closed and to try and work more with the community."

For instance, many people enter the park illegally or trespass on the research side. Increased public education and community involvement in the management of the mountain might serve to eliminate these problems.

According to Lechowicz, the newly revised master plan will not only emphasize McGill's commitment to preservation, teaching and research, but it will also stress the necessity to work with the local community and promote their understanding of the University's goals and objectives.

"A lot of [the trespassers] don't even realize that they're on the research side--that there even is a research side," said Caroline Hall, a PhD student in biology also doing research on chipmunks.

For Vanderheyden, the mountain must be treated as a community asset in order for it to be protected for future generations. "If it was strictly run by McGill, people wouldn't be as interested in it," he says. As it stands, the majority of the Nature Centre's board members are local residents.

One initiative to enhance awareness of the area's ecological importance and strengthen links between the University and the community is an exhibit on Mont St. Hilaire at the Redpath Museum until April. The exhibit brings together the historical, scientific and academic features of the mountain. After April, it will be transported to the Nature Centre, where visitors can benefit from its educative value.

Another initiative which may offer an important role for Mont St. Hilaire is McGill's new School of the Environment, projected to open in September of 1998. While the form and priorities of the school are still being decided, the focus will primarily be on problem-based learning. The mountain may be used as a place for teaching and bringing students in touch with the local community. The school will also be trans-disciplinary, with contributions from Science, Arts, Agricultural and Environmental Science and possibly Engineering.

"I think that the main motive force [behind the school] is the genuine fusion of scientific and humanist views of the environment," says Professor Graham Bell of the biology department and former Scientific Director of the mountain who recognizes the need to preserve a delicate balance. "The argument has been made that a purely scientific approach to the environment has failed because it has become purely technological, and a humanist approach has failed because it is ignorant of the scientific processes."

Alexandra Stikeman, a bachelor's student in biology, is a participant in the Reporter's Student Science Writing Internship Program. Based on an initiative at the University of Guelph, the program is sponsored by NSERC.

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