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We are not the owners of Thickson's Woods, but merely its guardians, for future generations of life on earth.
Saving Thickson’s Woods — an ardent and ongoing effort

By Dennis Barry

It’s likely Wendat were among the First Nations people hunting and fishing along the bountiful shores of Lake Ontario in centuries past.  Tom Crawford, a long-time resident of the Thickson’s Point community, told stories of finding flints and arrowheads while farming where the Corbett Creek Water Pollution Control Plant now stands.

“These pines are reserved for masts for His Majesty’s Navy!” state the early deeds of landowners at Corbett Point, the original name of the area. By the time William Stephenson, the Man called Intrepid, was training spies at Camp X across Corbett Creek Marsh in the early 1940s, warships no longer were powered by sails. Many of the white pines in Thickson’s Woods today were already more than a hundred feet tall and over a hundred years old. On a bright May morning in the early 1960s, when I first visited Thickson’s Woods on an Oshawa Naturalists’ Club outing, the trees were alive with a myriad of colourful warblers.

In 1967 the Club had the chance to purchase the woods for $7,000. Sounds like a golden opportunity missed, but to put things in perspective, a comfortable house could have been purchased that year for about $20,000. Besides, back then most of us thought our favourite birding spots would always be there to welcome us. Why worry?

Then in September of 1983 tragedy struck. The developer who owned Thickson’s Woods, unable to obtain zoning to build condos there, sold the logging rights. For four days the earth shook as one huge towering white pine after another crashed to the ground. By the time the naturalist community was galvanized into action, 66 ancient pines had fallen.

Thus Thickson’s Woods Heritage Foundation was born. In the spring of 1984 a small group of naturalists dipped into their savings to raise the $30,000 down payment to purchase the 16+ acres that encompass the woods, the lakefront, and the western portion of Corbett Creek Marsh. The remaining $60,000 mortgage, plus interest, was paid off over the next five years. Funds were raised through yard sales, an art raffle, and birdathons, as well as a grant from the McLean Foundation. But most of the money came from donations made by hundreds of concerned folks, near and far, who loved wild spaces and were devastated as many of their favourite haunts were destroyed.

Back then the fields to the west were planted to corn, canola and tomatoes, though the meadow to the north of the woods was no longer being used as a pasture. Staff from the Corbett Creek Water Pollution Control Plant cooperated in the planting of evergreens along the north side of the road leading to their facility. Some white pine seedlings sprouted on their own in the woods after the giants were felled, while others were planted.

When the mortgage was finally paid off, board members breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed a little. By this time, however, industry was fast replacing farming, and rumours persisted about plans for development on that former pasture. Numerous attempts were made over the next dozen years to discuss with the owners the possibility of buying the meadow, but these were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the sewage plant underwent an expansion, which included a new entrance off Wentworth Street. The Waterfront Trail became a reality, utilizing the old road along the north border of the woods as part of its route through Whitby. As more and more of the open fields around Thickson’s Woods were destroyed to allow for factories, warehouses and truck depots, it became obvious that it was only a matter of time until the meadow would be paved over. Norman Schipper, one of our directors, pointed out how the very things that make Thickson’s Woods so special would be compromised if that happened. Its value as a refuge for humans and wildlife alike, as they sought respite from the hectic pace of an increasingly urban environment, would be severely diminished.

It seemed like a daunting task, but the Thickson’s Woods Heritage Foundation board of directors felt we had no choice but to try to buy the meadow. Thanks to a timely economic slump the property that had been up for sale for more than a million dollars briefly decreased in value, creating a window of opportunity. A deal was agreed upon, with a purchase price of $531,000 for two parcels totaling 81⁄2 acres. We asked for a six-month delay before closing to allow time to raise the $100,000 down payment. Our thinking was that if we could raise that much in six months, then raising the remaining $431,000 plus interest over the next five years should be possible. 

Not only did many donors rise to the challenge, but their generosity meant we were able to pay down the mortgage by an additional $23,000 when the meadow was tentatively added to the Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve, on February 2, 2001. Pancake breakfasts, silent auctions, birders “May-rathons” and other fund-raisers took care of mortgage payments as well as slowly paying down the debt over the next four years, with last-minute bountiful donations from a woman in Whitby and a business in Don Mills helping us meet the bank deadline nine months early.

Now the Waterfront Trail runs through the heart of Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve. An attractive sign built and erected by Phill Holder stands at the southwest corner of the meadow to welcome everyone.

Subsequent fund-raising efforts allowed us to purchase three building lots within the woods over the years, protecting precious old-growth habitat from being cleared and destroyed. In 2002 we applied for a change in zoning from M1 Industrial to Open Space, in keeping with our goals. This also reduced our tax burden substantially.

Since Thickson’s Woods Heritage Foundation was created in 1984, the Ontario Land Trust Alliance came into being, with groups forming all across the province dedicated to keeping land in its natural state forever. Thickson’s Woods became the first property listed on the Ontario Land Trust Alliance registry of protected areas. In 2001, we adopted “Thickson’s Woods Land Trust” as our working name.

Nature immersion for children growing up in sterile urban neighbourhoods is becoming more and more important as the city relentlessly expands.  Up until the covid-19 pandemic broke out our annual Birds, Beavers and Butterflies Nature Festival provided generations of kids, parents and grandparents with hands-on exposure to the fascinating worlds of insects, birds, mammals, plants, geology and astrology, plus nature crafts and concerts. In our goal of nature education outreach, we hope to continue welcoming classes of schoolchildren to the reserve in years to come.

Concerned about maintaining the health of the woods into the future, we finally in 2021 hired a professional forester to develop a management plan.  Implementing it, as well as taxes, insurance and reserve maintenance, are our major expenses, since upkeep is mostly done by volunteers.

Social media and digital technology have resulted in a massive influx of photographers on the hunt for wildlife pictures.  It’s now necessary to restrict visitor access to the main marked trails in tiny Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve, to protect roosting birds from being hounded, wildflowers from being trampled and the delicate mycorrhizal webwork of the forest floor from being crushed. Protecting precious wildlife habitat these days includes keeping humans from “loving” it to death.