When Kristyn Ferguson first saw 20-hectares of old-growth at South Freezy Lake in Haliburton Forest, she was impressed by the 150-year-old trees.

The Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) employee remembers bird song ringing out from the canopy, butterflies fluttering around her, an amazing diversity of plants around her feet, and the wetlands that ringed the site.

“I remember how special this place was. I could feel it. I could feel the history there and it just immediately became apparent that this was the project to be working on,” she told a gathering at the Wolf Centre April 27.

The project between NCC and the Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve has led to the first recognized ‘other effective area-based conservation measure’ (OECM) within a privately-owned commercial forest in Canada.

It means the old-growth forest, which features sugar maple, eastern hemlock, American beech and white pine, has been set aside from timber harvesting and other industrial activities.

It’s all part of reaching Canada’s goal of protecting 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030.

Ferguson said she first visited the Forest in 2019 and the South Freezy Lake old-growth in 2020, and the designation was recently made. She added it was precedent-setting so took a bit of time.

Cockwell: ‘ecological significance immense’

“This is important. This is the country’s first OECM on private, managed forest, and it’s also the first that is led by the forest industry. These are huge. This gives a chance to inspire others to come along for a similar journey.”

The forest within a forest will be monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure it continues to deliver conservation outcomes. This includes things such as the presence of certain wildlife, forest structure and lack of disturbance.

Managing director of Haliburton Forest, Malcolm Cockwell, said the Forest has been on the leading edge of sustainable forest management. For example, tree marking and being the first in Canada to be certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council. However, while proud of their accomplishments, he said they had not been satisfied.

“We always want to continue to do better and to find new ways to innovate and be more sustainable in our practices.” He said their motto is, “we haven’t figured it out yet, we have to try something different.”

That’s when the partnership with NCC came along and Cockwell said, “we have figured it out.”

He said South Freezy Lake has never been subject to industrial activity, and only minimal hiking and hunting. “As a result, this area has many of the classic old-growth features. It’s quite impressive when you get into,” Cockwell said, “with big old trees, a lot of dead wood, critical habitat and the soil structure.

“While the geographic area represented by the South Freezy Lake old-growth forest may be small in the grand scheme of Haliburton Forest, its ecological significance is immense and we hope its conservation inspires other landowners in the future.”

The province acknowledged the celebration. Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, David Piccini said, “the OECM is an innovative way to support and strengthen our province’s rich biodiversity and conservation of our greenspaces through partnerships between the forest industry and conservation organizations to promote healthy spaces for generations to come.”