Ganaraska Forest History Conservation Ontario

Ganaraska Forest
(a conservation landmark)



Trees:  Guardians
of Walker Rd.

(Port Hope)


Conservation Pioneers:

V. B. Blake
Pioneer Historian

E. J. Zavitz
Chief of Reforestation

A. H. Richardson

Dr. R. C. Wallace
"Wallace of Queen's"

G.M. Wrong
History Prof./Author

Lois James
hampion of the Rouge
Order of Canada









A man doesn’t plant a tree
for himself.
He plants it for posterity.

Alexander Smith,
Scottish Poet (1830-1867)










Hurt not the earth,
neither the sea,
nor the trees.

Revelation 7:3









As the poet said,
"only God can make a tree" -
probably because it's so hard
 to figure out how to get
the bark on. 

Woody Allen







Of all who plant
And tend a crop
The man of God
And the man of the forest
Dedicate their lives
To a certain faith
In an everlasting harvest
To be enjoyed
In some future time.







The tree which moves some
to tears of joy is
in the eyes of others
only a green thing that
 stands in the way.

William Blake








Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets.
To plant a pine, one need only
own a shovel

Aldo Leopold







The first principle to go by
is to just sit and let
the land speak to you

 Henry Kock











Someone's sitting in the shade
today because someone planted
a tree a long time ago

Warren Buffett












Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.

Chinese Proverb










"My son, I admonish you to
cherish the little waters, for these replenish the mighty rivers that nourish our thirsty land."

Samuel Woodstock**










River valley development is
the wise use of all the natural resources of a river valley for
all the people… for all time.

Samuel Woodstock *








The great ecosystems are like
complex tapestries --
a million complicated threads, interwoven, make up
the whole picture.

Gerald Durrell










Conservation with its abundance  
of good things, is
rooted in the future.

Samuel Woodstock **




**Samuel Woodstock was a fictitious character and alias used by A. H. Richardson. First published in "Our Valley" (TRCA) and "Conservation by the People:The History of The Conservation Movement in Ontario to 1970" (1974)













"History matters to us as individuals because it locates us in time and place and gives meaning to our lives. It matters to us as citizens because through an ordering of the past into discernible patterns, we can better understand how past choices have present day consequences. What we remember, what we stress as significant, what we omit from our past, and what we don’t know or understand about the stories of our fellow inhabitants, is critical to our ability to endure as a collectivity... The past is part of our present and thereby part of our future…"

Thomas S. Axworthy, 1997











"You will find something more in woods than in books. 
Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.

Saint Bernard, Epistle 106









- and  -

Ganaraska Forest on the Oak Ridges Moraine north of Port Hope represents one of the most important conservation projects ever undertaken in Canada.  It's establishment in 1947 transformed the whole approach to conservation - with far reaching effects studied around the world.

By the late 1800s, Southern Ontario was one of the most populated and densely settled areas in Canada.  Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada had wrote in 1871 that “we are recklessly destroying the timber of Canada, and there is scarcely a possibility of replacing it.” 

Prior to WW II, most of the northern Ganaraska region was a barren expansive dust bowl and wasteland region - seen as "the Sahara of the North". Desertified and almost stripped of its trees, the landscape had become barren and unproductive. Countless farms were left abandoned as a result of extensive deforestation and poor agricultural practices.

Ganaraska wasteland area before World War II (above)
Photo courtesy: John Bacher and Ed Borczon

The early timber barons left huge barren wasteland areas.  The first settlers viewed the remaining trees and forests as obstacles to be cleared for farmland. Topsoil was blown or washed away.

In 1922, the Ontario government initiated the Agreement Forest Program with local municipalities which resulted in treeplanting on over 110,000 hectares (or 272,000 acres) of marginal lands. 

In 1938, the Federation of Ontario Naturalists published a study of the Oak Ridges Moraine, calling for its reforestation. Public perception of forestry and conservation began to improve: "Never before in Canada has so much interest been taken in the proper care and development of our forests..." (Forestry Chronicle Editorial, 1938) 

Flooding downstream in Port Hope was a major problem and regular event.

Floodwaters through downtown Walton Street, Port Hope
The Ganaraska Watershed Report, 1944, p. 71

For perhaps the first time in its history, Canada was turned back at the brink in the Ganaraska watershed through a remarkable effort at reforestation, forest management, and other soil conservation efforts which followed.

Shortly thereafter, Ontario became the first province in Canada to develop a comprehensive conservation strategy in the postwar era, beginning with the Guelph Conference (1941).

The Ganaraska watershed was selected as the initial test area which would soon mark the beginning of the first conservation authorities in Ontario.

"In 1941, conservationists from across the province met in Guelph to address the extensive damage to southern Ontario's  environment. Great tracts of land had been ruined through over cutting of the forest and through faulty farming practices. The conference, under the leadership of J.D. Thomas, chose the Ganaraska watershed, one of the most damaged in the province, as its pilot project.  Over the next few years they worked to restore the natural values of the watershed, mostly by planting trees. Its restoration marked the beginning of the conservation authorities of Ontario. The Conservation Authorities Act was passed in 1946. Over the next four decades the Ganaraska watershed had become one of the largest forested areas of southern Ontario with two million trees planted."

Sauriol, Charles (1984). Tales of the Don.  pp. 164, 165
Toronto, ON: Natural heritage/Natural History Inc.

* * *

The Ganaraska Watershed study was undertaken at an unusual time - during WW II when most of Canada's resources were mandated to the war effort abroad. 

Co-sponsored by the Federal and Provincial Governments, the establishment of Ganaraska Forest was not only important on the Oak Ridges Moraine (a large hydrologically sensitive glacial ridge of great ecological significance), it also had an important role in flood control of Port Hope to the south, where the Eldorado Nuclear Refinery was situated (now known as Cameco).

In 1942, the Canadian Government appointed a sub-committee headed by Dr. R.C. Wallace (Principal of Queen's University) and directed it to "consider and recommend…. the policy and programme appropriate to the most effective conservation and maximum future development of the natural resources of the Dominion of Canada."

Dr. Wallace wrote the Introduction of the Ganaraska Watershed report published in 1944 and concluded it's content had far-reaching effects which would be: "...of general significance for the conservation and rehabilitation of all our resources throughout Canada." (A. H. Richardson, Conservation by the People: The History of the Conservation Movement in Ontario to 1970, (1974)

In the same year (1942) as the Ganaraska Watershed study, the Eldorado Uranium Refinery in nearby Port Hope was acquired by the Canadian Government and made into a Crown Corporation. Highly classified and shrouded in top secrecy, Eldorado played an important role in the war effort (it refined the uranium used in world's first atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

Ontario became the first province to develop a comprehensive conservation strategy - The Ganaraska Watershed (1944) report. It was the first conservation study of its kind in Canada and in essence, the foundation of the modern day greenbelt plan. It was the foundation report which resulted in the establishment of Ganaraska Forest. 

"The (Ganaraska) document proved to be monumental in terms of the resurgence of the conservation movement in Canada generally, and in Ontario in particular... Entitled The Ganaraska Survey, the report was unlike any other ever produced by the Ontario government, and represented a significant departure from the way in which resources were traditionally regarded in Ontario."

Steve Jobbitt, Recivilizing the Land: Conservation and
Postwar Reconstruction in Ontario, 1939-1961, (2001) p.74)

* * *

Ganaraska Forest was the first large-scale reforestation conservation project on the Oak Ridges Moraine.  It is also southern Ontario's largest continuous block of forest  - located within the Counties of Northumberland, Peterborough, Kawartha Lakes (Victoria) and the Region of Durham.

"The Ganaraska Authority was the first to undertake afforestation on a large scale. Some 20,000 acres, largely on the interlobate moraine (Oak Ridges Moraine) and consisting of many plantable areas and woodlands was proposed as the area for the Ganaraska Forest..."

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Critical Review
 of Historical and Current Tree Planting Programs
 on Private Lands in Ontario, 2001 p.10

* * *

Ganaraska Forest is now part of Ontario's Greenbelt - the world's largest greenbelt. Without the Ganaraska project as the blueprint and the acquisition of conservation lands by the newly formed conservation authorities, two of the greatest conservation achievements in Canadian history would probably not have happened.

The world's largest greenbelt (Ontario's Greenbelt) and one of the largest urban parks in the world (Rouge National Urban Park) would probably not exist today without the initial study and follow-through of many of the recommendations in the Ganaraska Watershed report published in 1944. 

"... the Ganaraska Watershed area is small; but its importance is greater than its size. The area was deliberately chosen from the older settlement areas of Eastern Canada to demonstrate what intensive surveys and plans for future work should aim at.  It was undertaken not as a routine or maintenance survey, but as a much needed piece of research in Canadian conservation literature."

Dr. Robert C. Wallace, Principal of Queen's University,
December 21, 1943 as quoted in The Ganaraska
Watershed report, A.H. Richardson, 1944 p. vi

* * *

Ganaraska Forest was the template. The recommendations of the Ganaraska Watershed report (1944) was the model for the R.D.H.P. Conservation Report (1956) which followed (Rouge and neighboring watersheds) leading to the creation of Rouge National Urban Park.

"While primarily a study in land use with plans for the rehabilitation of this particular watershed during the post-war period, the  Ganaraska Report would become the model for future conservation studies throughout the Province of Ontario."

John C. Carter, Ontario Conservation Authorities:
Their Heritage Resources and Museums,
 Ontario History, Volume XCIV, No. 1, Spring 2002

* * *

Both the Ganaraska and Rouge conservation reports included the same principal authors, A. H. Richardson, Forest Engineer from Toronto and V. B. Blake, lead historian from the Ganaraska area north of Port Hope.

Appointed by the Canadian Government to head up the Ganaraska study, Dr. R. C. Wallace, the Principal of Queen's University wrote the introductory chapter of the Ganaraska Watershed report.

Finding the historical section most interesting, Dr. Wallace recommended its inclusion in the Ganaraska report. A local history section as part of the conservation reports which followed assured the interest and support of the politicians and general public. It also led to the success of the newly formed conservation authorities and numerous conservation projects which followed. Verschoyle Blake was the lead historian for almost all of the conservation reports in the province.

The Ganaraska region was the first watershed to demonstrate new concepts like the ecosystem approach and watershed based conservation planning (based on natural rather than political boundaries).

The establishment of Ganaraska Forest was the first act of landscape planning in Ontario - it considered natural features and processes in their entirety.

Beyond Site: The Ganaraska Forest Reborn

“One of the most remarkable things about the Ganaraska Forest is that its story begins with the first act of landscape planning in Ontario that looked beyond site to consider natural features and processes in their entirety… 

In 1942, after several decades of surveying, documenting, and disseminating information about the spread of wastelands in Southern Ontario, and the need for a comprehensive reforestation program, a report on the Ganaraska Watershed was issued by the Government of Ontario, Department of Lands and Forests (which would later become the Ministry of Natural Resources). Co-authored by V.B. Blake, a local historian, and A.H. Richardson, a colleague of Zavitz’s from the Department of Lands and Forests, the report proposed a large-scale reforestation program. It also included a call for new land-use management strategies led by government agencies. This would be the birth of the idea for conservation authorities in Ontario, and the first example of land-use planning that considered natural features and processes above property lines and political boundaries.”

 Karen May, Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation
Ground: Landscape Architect Quarterly,
Ontario Association of Landscape Architects, Fall 2013

* * *

Ganaraska Forest was the catalyst which led to the creation of the first conservation authorities in Canada, the first conservation legislation, a conservation model for other watershed areas and provided a blueprint for acquiring conservation lands.

Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities own and operate over 500 conservation areas and collectively are among the largest public landowners of the most valuable real estate in Canada (a total land area of 145,357 hectares (359,185 acres).

The Ganaraska Forest is owned and managed today by the Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority.

Ganaraska Forest and Ontario's Greenbelt

The establishment of Ganaraska Forest in 1947 marked the beginning of the conservation movement in Ontario and set in motion a series of events which eventually led to the creation of the largest greenbelt in the world (Ontario's Greenbelt, 2005 - over two million acres).

"As the world’s largest greenbelt at 1.8 million acres...
Ontario’s Greenbelt is an area of permanently protected
 green space, farmland, forests, wetlands and watersheds...". 

Ontario Ministry Municipal Affairs and Housing

* * *

The Ganaraska project demonstrated the benefits of conservation and showed for the first time how resources (water, land, forests, wildlife and recreation) be considered together through a coordinated programme of resource management.

The Ganaraska Watershed  (1944) report also led to the passing of the first Conservation Authorities Act in 1946 and the creation of first conservation authorities in Ontario.

The CA Act was significant within the broad context of Canadian environmental history in that it marked a revival of state-sponsored conservation in Canada. The Ganaraska survey was the conservation model used by conservation authorities in other watershed areas.

"1946: The Conservation Authorities Act was passed, enabling municipalities to apply for the establishment of conservation authorities in their areas. The Ganaraska Survey was intended to be the model for the study on which each authority was to base its work."

Greening Our Watersheds - Revitalization Strategies 2002 Ch. 5
by Etobicoke and Mimico Creek Watersheds Task Force

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

* * *

The recommendations in The Ganaraska Watershed  (1944) report formed a foundation for the conservation authority movement in Ontario and have been studied around the world:

"The conservation authority movement in Ontario is world renowned, and professionals and parliamentarians from other provinces, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other parts of the world have come to study it."

A.H. Richardson, Conservation by the People (1974)

* * *

The Ganaraska report (1944) was the first study to include the components of a modern day greenbelt plan (forests, agricultural and recreational lands and wetlands). One of it's key recommendations was the establishment of a 20,000 acre forest (Ganaraska Forest).

The Greenbelt has many benefits:  

"The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that the natural capital of Ontario’s Greenbelt is worth $2.6 billion annually. Part of this amount is generated by the services rendered by the Greenbelt’s forests and wetlands, which clean the water supply, enhance air quality and support flood control. These ecosystems act as habitat for wildlife, including the pollinators that maintain and enhance the annual crops of fruit and vegetables. The ecosystems in the Greenbelt also help mitigate climate change by storing over 102 million tonnes of carbon in its wetlands, forests and agricultural lands." 

Ontario's Greenbelt connects Field to Fork Alternatives Journal,
 Joanne Tacorda, March 18, 2013

* * *

In January, 2013, the Ontario Government announced additional public lands in the river valleys of southern Ontario will become part of a new Urban River Valley designation in Ontario's Greenbelt - increasing the size of the largest greenbelt in the world to almost two million acres.  

“The Greenbelt… is a key part in our government’s efforts to protect  the environment and combat climate change.  In those terms, the Greenbelt is one of the greatest contributions our generation has made to the future of Ontario.”

Minister Linda Jeffrey of the Ministry of
 Municipal Affairs and Housing

Conservation Pioneers

Dr. Edmund J. Zavitz (1875-1968)

E. J. Zavitz was the first Chief of Reforestation in Ontario (The Ganaraska Report (1944) p.xii).

From a early report published in 1908, Zavitz is given credit for expressing the first conservation vision for the Ganaraska and Oak Ridges Moraine area:

"Extending through Northumberland and Durham Counties is a sand formation locally known as the "Oak Ridge" or "Pine Ridge"... It is safe to say that seventy-five percent is wholly unfit for successful farming... These areas should be preserved for the people of Ontario as recreation grounds for all time to come... The policy of putting these lands under forest management has many arguments in its favour... It will pay as a financial investment; assist in insuring a wood supply; protect the headwaters of streams; provide breeding ground for wild game; provide object lessons in forestry; and prevent citizens from developing under conditions which can end only in failure."

Report on the Reforestation of Waste Lands in Southern Ontario, 1908,
E.J. Zavitz,
published by Ontario Department of Agriculture, Toronto

More than any other man, it was Zavitz who planted the seeds of a modern day greenbelt plan more than a century ago as shown in the above 1908 report. Immediately following the Guelph Conference in 1941, Ganaraska was selected as the first pilot project.

A. H. Richardson (1890-1971)

Upon his graduation in 1920, A. H. Richardson became the long-time assistant to Dr. Zavitz (above noted) in the Forestry Branch of the Department of Lands and Forests.

Under the mentoring and direction of Zavitz, Richardson became known as a skilled communicator when it came to building public awareness of forestry matters. Richardson also helped to coordinate the practical end of the government's treeplanting efforts.

During WW2, A.H. Richardson was appointed by the Ontario Government to organize the Ganaraska study. 

V.B. Blake  (1899-1971)

Verschoyle Benson Blake was well respected as a pioneer historian, historic preservationist, archivist, conservationist and Ganaraska area resident. 

The Public Meeting of the Port Hope Historical Society (formerly East Durham) on March 18, 2009 drew much public attention with one of the best turnouts ever. The unusually strong attendance was probably in response to the Press Release written by Ron Getz, President which read: 


“We tend to take the Ganaraska Forest and the millions of evergreens on the Great Pine Ridge (Oak Ridges Moraine) for granted. There are still many in the old United Counties, however, who remember when the area north of Port Hope was a dust bowl of eroding hills and abandoned farms. The massive reforestation undertaken in the late Forties and early Fifties transformed our landscape. One of the visionary pioneers who worked behind the scenes was a shy, self-effacing historian and conservationist named Verschoyle Benson Blake. Blake bought a farm northwest of Garden Hill in 1926, and began tree-planting experiments. When Dr. A. H. Richardson laid the groundwork for the Forest, he hired Vers Blake as lead historian for the report that provided the impetus for the project. Blake’s contribution to conservation and the preservation of Ontario’s history remains an untold story…”

Ron Getz, President, Port Hope Historical Society
"Story of pioneering conservationist to be told"
Northumberland Today, March 12, 2009, p. 2:1

V. B. Blake arrived in the Ganaraska region (north of Port Hope) in 1926. He became known as “the quiet conservationist” and was very knowledgeable about history, particularly in the Ganaraska area. Blake played a key role in the Ganaraska Forest project (he helped compile it) and was the only Ganaraska area resident on the initial Ganaraska survey team.

V.B. Blake was also certainly influenced by two of the greatest academic scholars of the time, his uncle, G. M. Wrong (1860-1948) - University of Toronto History Professor and Author and Dr. R.C. Wallace (1881-1955) - Principal of Queen's University.

Blake's strong interest also included Canada's built heritage and he was a founding member of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario in 1933, along with C. Vincent Massey.  Both men had country properties along the Ganaraska River, named Ardfree and Batterwood respectively. Blake also worked on the St. Lawrence Seaway project (early cemeteries).  During the 1950's, V.B. Blake also helped organize the Provincial Plaques Program in Ontario.

V.B. Blake also served on the Advisory Committees for both Upper Canada Village and Black Creek Pioneer Village and was also instrumental in establishing Barnum House in Grafton as a museum (the primary reason  the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario was first established in 1933). In 1959, Barnum House became a National Historic Site of Canada.  

Blake worked as a historian with the Government of Ontario and joined the Ontario Department of Planning and Development, Conservation Branch in 1944.

V.B Blake became Supervisor of the Historical section of the Conservation Authorities Branch when it  began publishing historical studies for various geographically defined conservation areas across Ontario - beginning with the Ganaraska Watershed report (1944).

"Historian Verschoyle B. Blake was added to the survey team. It was Blake’s keen sense of the worth of history and his philosophy of how the conservation ethic could be supported through an understanding of the past that resulted in the inclusion of an introductory historical chapter in the Ganaraska study. Subsequent conservation reports by the government would also include accounts of the historical background of each watershed area studied..."

 John C. Carter, Ontario Conservation Authorities:
Their Heritage Resources and Museums,
Ontario History/Volume XCIV, No. 1, Spring 2002

Blake's work reflected the natural linkage between history and conservation for the first time -- the general public (and public officials) not only found this historical material interesting but were better able to understand the technical recommendations of the conservation reports. 

Other conservation reports also opened with Blake's historical backdrops which were essentially the first major conservation blueprints for the respective watersheds from which most modern day conservation achievements can be traced.

Blake's work remains a goldmine of information to this day - he

is remembered for his extraordinary work in heritage and conservation. 

Today, Blake is still regarded as:

"the Dean of Local Historians ... there hasn’t been
anybody like him since…”

Carl Thorpe, Retired Manager
Heritage and Libraries Branch, Ministry of Culture

"We need something more than archives to tell us how our forefathers lived... to read this in books and pictures is a good thing, but it is infinitely better to preserve some of the things themselves. To let these be lost through our indifference is to deprive future generations of a heritage to which they are entitled."

Verschoyle B. Blake, in Conservation by the People:
The History of the Conservation Movement
in Ontario to 1970
, by A.H. Richardson
 (1974) p. 103

"Cathedral of the Pines"

 the late
Judge Richard Lovekin
(Ganaraska Forest ceremony in 1994

As a result of reforestation, Ganaraska River has experienced even better results than originally predicted (including reduced flash runoff, river and streams flowing more evenly, increasing water storage in headwater aquifers, reduced spring flooding in Port Hope and summer low-flow conditions).

History is important. Given its unique historic role in Canada's conservation movement, one tied to important events in Canadian history, Ganaraska Forest is recognized as one of the most successful conservation projects undertaken.

Thank you for visiting.

Researcher: M. Martin

Special thanks to:

Elizabeth Bacque, niece of VBB
Murray Johnson, President Rouge Valley Foundation
John C. Carter, Museum Advisor - Ministry of Citizenship, Culture
Carl Thorpe, Retired Manager - Heritage and Libraries Branch,
Ministry of Culture
 Pam Lancaster and Mark Peacock, GRCA
Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority
Larry Hall
 (dec'd.) and Evelyn Hall, Port Hope
Bernadine Dodge, Archivist, Trent University
Paul Litt, Dept. of History, Carlton University
Peter Stokes, Architectural Historian (dec'd.)
John Bacher, Author 

Ed Borczon, Forester


c2015 M.Martin



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