A Point Worth Protecting

September 1, 1997 by Marla Fletcher

A solitary red-winged blackbird hops expectantly around a gravel parking lot next to the takeout lunch trailer. The small bird isn’t at all shy, or wary of humans milling nearby.

Pausing in front of a sign that warns “Please do not feed the fish,” our guide notices the bird and a quick frown crosses his face. “That’s not something we like to see,” he mutters, then shakes his head and moves on. Such scrounging is troubling, he explains, because this is Point Pelee National Park–a place that is meant to remain wild, and feeding of creatures in the wild is discouraged. It is the bird’s natural habitat, and if the blackbird is growing accustomed to eating human hand-outs it may ingest something that will make it sick.

At this southernmost tip of mainland Canada near Leamington, Ont., there are many attractions–yet this is one nature preserve that almost wasn’t. It was precisely the park’s endowments that brought Pelee close to being dropped from the national parks system in 1963. Its popularity as a bird-watcher’s paradise and excellent beach area drew 781,000 human visitors to the 15-square-kilometre haven that year–enough to make the federal government fear for the park’s environmental future.

But Canada’s second-smallest national park endures, largely because of its importance as one of four national parks representing the biologically diverse St. Lawrence Lowlands. Point Pelee alone is in the Carolinian zone, named for a rich ecosystem that extends from southern Canada into the United States, along the Appalachian Mountains to North and South Carolina’s coastal region. The peninsula is located on Lake Erie, south of the 42nd parallel, where warm climes resemble those of Barcelona, Spain, and northern California.

Thanks to favorable latitude and the Great Lakes’ moderating effect, Pelee is almost tropical compared to the rest of the country. In forested parts, thick vines hanging from the trees filter summer sunlight. Marshland occupies another two-thirds of the park. Flora, fauna and environments reflect such variation: There are more than 360 different species of birds and 750 plant types. Five distinct habitats co-exist: Beach, cedar savannah, dryland forest, swamp forest, marsh.

Nowhere else in Canada can you see in abundance the golden-hued prickly pear cactus, hardy citrus hop tree, sought-after songbirds such as Carolina wrens and hooded warblers, or trees and bushes draped in fall with pulsating monarch butterflies. Rose mallow growing in the park marshes is Canada’s only native hibiscus. In fact, there are more rare plant and animal species here than in any other part of the country.

Point Pelee is to bird-watchers what the Cannes film festival is to movie buffs. Birds pass over by the hundreds of thousands each spring and fall, because it is at the junction of the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. Pelee’s varied habitats create nesting areas for many species. With bird-watching now cited as the fastest-growing outdoor activity in North America, it’s no wonder 20,000 binocular-toting devotees turn up each May.

“Every beginning birder’s dream is to bird at Pelee,” says champion bird-watcher Bruce Di Labio. At 39, the Kanata, Ont., resident has been bird-watching for almost three decades. His team has triumphed three times at the challenging annual World Series of Birding in the U.S.–most recently in May. He describes Pelee as “a very special place” because it has introduced so many to the wonders of birding and nature. According to Di Labio, birders who visit during spring migration often record many personal ‘firsts.’ His favorite memory comes from 1977, when he was making his third park pilgrimage. A chance meeting with master bird illustrator-expert Roger Tory Peterson was a thrill for the 19-year-old Di Labio.

We can thank birders for spotting this gem. Percy Taverner, in 1915 Canada’s chief ornithologist, was among the first to consider the area important enough to merit federal protection. He recognized Pelee’s role as “one of the most important migration highways in America,” and in 1918 succeeded in persuading the federal government to declare it our ninth national park. Naturalists had been visiting the point long before, however, and wrote in the late 1800s of their extensive findings. The Great Lakes Ornithological Club met often between 1905 and 1927 at the Point Pelee headquarters; members celebrated spotting yellow-breasted chats, Chuck-will’s-widows and blue-winged warblers.

A man known locally as Wild Goose Jack operated a Canada goose sanctuary at his Kingsville, Ont., home around this time. His 1913 introduction to Pelee so impressed Jack Miner that he became another park champion. He wrote in a letter to the Leamington Post: “I saw the greatest variety of trees and shrubs that stand in any one place in Ontario. In fact, I spent this day in the prettiest ‘natural park’ I ever saw…. Let us combine our forces and keep Point Pelee out of the hands of unlimited wealth and preserve it for our children’s children.”

Author Darryl Stewart has traced the park’s beginnings in his book, Point Pelee: Canada’s Deep South. The peninsula was created by glacial action more than 10,000 years ago, he explained. An ever-changing sandy ridge was deposited on Devonian limestone that is millions of years old. “Indians were living at Point Pelee about 600 AD, 400 years before Norse adventurers discovered North America, and approximately 900 years before the epic voyage of Christopher Columbus,” Stewart wrote. He noted the point was named by early French explorers who called it “pelee”–meaning “bald, bare,” an apt description for the rocky eastern shore they encountered in the late 1600s.

Under British rule, the peninsula’s southern section–now parkland–was declared a naval reserve in the 1790s, securing valuable stands of white oak for shipbuilding. The log home of the DeLaurier family has been preserved on site as an example of 19th century European homesteading. It was built from native trees, including black walnut, red cedar and white pine.

Nature-lovers enjoying national parks today would probably echo Wild Goose Jack about preserving our natural legacy. But that wasn’t the common wisdom in post-Depression and postwar eras when private cottages, farms, orchards and even commercial outlets pervaded Pelee. By 1922, the park contained parking lots, bath houses and pavilions; vacationers tented and parked anywhere. Two inns operated, and commercial fisheries didn’t disappear until the late 1960s. By that time, a summer Sunday at the fragile Tip meant jammed parking lots and wall-to-wall people who revelled in the carnival-like atmosphere.

Then, slowly and under Ottawa’s direction, the focus began to shift.

“I was trying to look in all directions at once,” Miner gushed 84 years ago–and that’s still a good description of the Pelee experience. Staff and supporters are dedicated to preserving the park’s ecological bounty, and to teaching others how living creatures and places interact. “The better we understand the environment, the better we’ll be able to live within it…. We’re all part of a larger ecosystem and we cannot sustain that (balance of humans and nature) on our own,” says Superintendent Ross Thomson.

It’s a delicate balance. More than six million people live within two hours’ driving distance, and almost half a million visit each year. Much of the park staff’s task is to “try to recover from past human impacts and past management mistakes,” admits Dan Reive, chief park warden. He says they rely on good scientific information and hope it’s all for the best.

‘Stewardship’ is a term used frequently by environmentalists and those in parks management. Environment Canada says it means managing natural resources in ways that conserve them for future generations. At Point Pelee, examples of stewardship range from subtle to quite visible. When 1,000 cars have entered the park, its gates are closed. It’s a day-use park with no overnight camping, and visitors are encouraged to prevent soil compaction and protect plants by walking on designated trails or boardwalks. The white-tailed deer population is kept to about 26 animals, the most the park can sustain without harming vegetation. Birders are urged to also try other area hot spots, and activities in fall and winter are promoted to spread out visitor traffic.

Some beach areas are fenced or permit passage only on boardwalks. Other spots are closed to the public in order to protect sensitive nesting areas or plants, or species that are re-establishing. Park users are channelled into three main areas, leaving the remainder essentially pristine. Picking plants or taking home souvenirs is forbidden; even the smallest piece of driftwood may be some creature’s home. Hunting was banned in 1989, and catch-and-release fishing continues only in restricted form. A tramway keeps cars away from the Tip.

“We try to reduce the footprint of human activity,” Thomson relates. Point Pelee is intended to be a kind of genetic time capsule in perpetuity. That approach is Parks Canada policy; ecological integrity initiatives dominated 1988 amendments to the National Parks Act.

But there are issues with air quality, invasive exotic species, pollutants in Lake Erie, fertilizer runoff from neighboring farms, urban encroachment and soil contamination from past pesticide use–all serious threats to Pelee’s continued well-being. In addition, the park’s isolation amid urban surroundings means there are no wildlife “corridors” where animals can wander unimpeded and genetic material can be exchanged and perpetuated. Staff are working to counter this by educating area residents about environment-friendly farming practices, habitat conservation and the value of native species. One notable success: Local nurseries now promote native over non-native species, and local governments use native selections when they plant.

But even in protected places like Point Pelee, species are lost. There have been no bullfrogs sighted since 1991, and Blanchard’s cricket frog and the Eastern gray treefrog have disappeared. Research indicates DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) used in orchards and for mosquito control more than 25 years ago may be to blame.

Fortunately, Pelee is not without friends–an army of them. “We are its biggest fans,” smiles Lea Martell, general manager of the Friends of Point Pelee, a volunteer group that she describes as park ambassadors.

As members dispense warm encouragement with the muffins and coffee on a chilly May morning, it’s hard to disagree. The 400-strong association raises money through a bookstore-gift shop, lunch counter, canoe and bike rentals, birders’ breakfasts during spring migration, and bingos and raffles. The Friends publish the annual visitors’ guide and bird check-lists, as well as other reference material. They also sell park memorabilia, have established a high school scholarship fund, and finance other educational activities, raising more than $335,000 annually for their stated goal: Protection and presentation of the park’s resources.

Campaigns espoused by the Friends have included removing ‘exotic’ plants (like black locust trees) that choke out native varieties, reintroduction of the southern flying squirrel, and restoration of the once-prevalent red cedar savannah. A new project is Keep The Songs Alive, a $500,000 revitalization of the visitors centre with dynamic interactive displays, to be funded by public, private and corporate donations over three years. By the end of April, the Friends had raised $41,000.

Beyond consciousness-raising and digging for dollars, a core group of approximately 30 volunteers contributes directly, providing an average 1,500 hours of service per year. They help out in the various facilities and at special events and educational presentations. They do it for love of the natural world, and for their community. “It’s a rather unique geographical area…and (we) want to keep it that way,” says Don Ross who helped launch the association in 1981. After WW II, Ross worked as a biologist in orchards that were then part of Point Pelee; wife Margaret was a high school science teacher who enjoyed taking classes there on day trips. “It’s a very peaceful place (where) you can go and basically enjoy nature unspoiled,” she notes.

“I…have the feeling that I can put something back, after all the years that I’ve enjoyed it (through family and individual outings),” adds Eunice Goyette, another founding member who also lives in nearby Leamington.

Few area businesses speak ill of Point Pelee. “I’m full seven months of the year,” declares Leamington bed-and-breakfast owner/operator Agatha Tiessen. Along with Home Suite Home, Tiessen runs a reservation service booking tourists into 40 local guest homes. “I think people are just beginning to realize how many people the park brings into this area.”

Mike Vourakes agrees. He considers the park a “fantastic” draw that has benefited two family-owned eateries, the Dock and the Tropicana, for many years. “We’re in a small town,” says Vourakes. “Our central market area here is approximately 50,000 residents…(so) we heavily depend on out-of-town guests to support our businesses.” Nearby attractions include wineries, two provincial parks, and campgrounds.

Corporate sponsor Walter Schmoranz, general manager of neighboring Pelee Island Winery, puts his money–and product labels–where his heart is. By featuring wildlife drawings on wine bottles, Schmoranz says he hopes to illustrate “how exotic it is, by highlighting some of the more rare trees and wildlife species we have here.” He ruefully acknowledges some of his wines are better known by the pretty labels than by name or type, but he takes it all in stride. The winery’s support–now in its third year–is channelled through the Friends so money is spent on park initiatives, not “Revenue Canada’s general funds.”

Not everyone thinks the park has developed the way it should. Both Superintendent Thomson and Leamington Mayor Jim Ross point to locals who haven’t returned since a 1995 hike in entrance fees. Where admission was once 25 cents a day, it’s now over $8 per family group daily. A season pass costs $42.80 per family, or $10.70-$21.40 for various individual passes. Canada’s Auditor General criticized Pelee’s “incomplete and inadequate” database of biophysical inventory last fall, and noted there was no assessment of how many total visitors are acceptable. The park’s December 1995 management plan indicated staff would address those concerns.

Still, Essex County residents can’t deny Point Pelee’s economic clout. An estimated $10,000,000 pumps the local economy annually–through visitors from the immediate area, the U.S., Britain, Germany and Japan. Mayor Ross credits park staff for being “part of the community,” ready to participate in all tourism–and development–related meetings and committees.

The park’s future seems secure, Goyette affirms, now that environmental preservation is the focus and appropriate controls are in place. But it’s an ongoing challenge. Like all national parks, Pelee has limited resources. Federal funding for Parks Canada will decline almost $100 million by the end of this decade, to just over $270 million. Each park is now expected to increase its cash flow through gate receipts, rentals and fees for service. Pelee’s budget has been cut 24 per cent over five years; it will be around $1.5 million in March 1998. Staffing has suffered too: there are 19 full-time staff, five part-timers and about 20 seasonal contract workers.

Point Pelee wins rave reviews from visitors. Guest book gleanings include: “La Pointe est incroyable!”, “Great place for hiking,” “I think it is really cool”, “Beautiful,” and “Thanks for being here.”

In 1977, Canadian author Pierre Berton rhapsodized: “Pelee in May is as close as I wish to be to paradise.” As the red-winged blackbirds scream ‘ok-ka-ree’ across the marsh, natural interpreter Dan Dufour’s words also fit: “Our main mandate is to protect the area, and our second mandate is to show it to Canadians…. We don’t want to sell our soul. We don’t want to bring in…thousands of people if it’s going to destroy the park.”

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