On May 20th 2023, a dedication ceremony was held for a resting bench created to recognize the contributions of Stan and Maxine McRae to the Gabriola community. The bench was crafted by Andre Nobels and had been installed by the GaLTT trail crew a few days earlier. The event was a great time to think about what community means in relation to conservation, and how we all can contribute to both.

The McRaes knew the importance of our island’s ecology. When they purchased a 20-acre plot on South Road, it was largely to prevent it from being subdivided and developed, because they recognized the need for large areas to provide a home for wildlife and native species. In 2010 they became the first landholders on Gabriola to establish a NAPTEP conservation covenant with the Islands Trust Fund (now Islands Trust Conservancy/ITC) on most of their property, protecting it forever.

They also believed in the importance of community. In 1991 they generously donated a piece of their land to the Gabriola Historical and Museum Society (founded in 1986), providing a place to begin to build. When the McRaes passed away, their property was sold to the Museum, who now steward the conservation covenant, carrying on their legacy.

The covenant is held by the ITC, and although GaLTT is not a covenant co-holder, we do support the Museum in its stewardship. We work to maintain the trail and have provided advice and support on matters pertaining to the covenant. With the generous cooperation of the Museum and adjacent land holders, we hold formal trail licences permitting public access to a trail from Fell Rd to South Rd.

Protecting special places and fragile wonders

The fragility of such areas can make a property like this tricky to manage. The purpose of a conservation covenant is to protect the ecological values of land from human incursion and degradation. Not all covenanted lands allow public access, but the McRae lands sit close to the Village and the trail across them has long been an important neighbourhood connector.

The photo shows a sign explaining the species found in a mossy meadow. The base of the signpost is held in a "gabion"—a big pile of rocks enclosed in wire netting.

Although it is not appropriate in every circumstance, GaLTT sees great value in providing public access to natural areas, because experiencing such places directly helps people to understand their value. Think of the meadow at the end of Fell Road, where GaLTT recently contributed to the content of and installed new interpretive signs to educate people about the land. Mossy meadows over sandstone are classed as sensitive ecosystems by the ITC, and are home to a number of herbaceous species not found elsewhere. But as one sign says, they are “fragile wonders” and easily damaged, taking years or even decades to recover from any harm done to them. That’s the reason GaLTT’s sign installations use “gabions” (wire-caged bundles of rock) that sit on the sandstone without damaging it.

Covenant management for the McRae covenant lands needs to balance maintaining its ecological integrity with the important historical use of the land as a public transportation route for walkers and cyclists. Making protection even more challenging, the last few years have seen increased usage of trails everywhere on Gabriola, resulting in them generally becoming wider and more eroded. Luckily as a community there’s an easy way to contribute to maintaining a healthy balance between the needs of conservation and access on the McRae lands: stay on the trail and leash your dogs so they’re on the trail too. In winter, if you can’t avoid puddles or ice except by walking on the meadows rather than bare rock, consider taking an alternate route.

Working together to protect special places

In small rural locations such as ours there are lots of overlaps in personal and collective goals as we try to create a healthy community within a healthy environment. There’s a lot that Gabriolans can do beyond staying on trails to protect the ecology of our island, both as individuals and working together.

Local organizations can (and do) share knowledge and work together, formally or informally, on areas of common interest; GaLTT and the Museum are just one example of this in practice.

If you are fortunate and have the privilege of being a landholder on Gabriola, you can donate or covenant your property as the McRaes did, leaving a tangible legacy to our community. Or get involved with GaLTT’s Nature Stewards program and protect native habitat and species on your land. If you’re clearing land, you can donate plants to GaLTT’s Native Plant Depot so they can be re-homed.

And of course, you can volunteer! GaLTT needs people to help with everything from trail-building and maintenance to managing invasive plants on public lands to fundraising to communications—you name it, we’ve got a place for you to help, and we’re actively looking for people to work with us.

The McRae covenant lands are a wonderful example of what people can accomplish, formally and informally, individually and working together within organizations, and we should take them as an inspiration.

They say it takes a village to raise a child—well, it also takes a village to build and protect the home the child lives in. We’re lucky to live in a village that values such things.

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