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Oshawa’s own wildlife reserve

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By Stefany Harris/The Oshawa Express

In light of massive change, General Motors has announced plans to donate the company’s nearly 30-year-old wildlife reserve to the City of Oshawa.

GM will also partner with the City to help advance its sustainable development and investment plans for the future.

The automobile manufacturing giant went outside the norm of making cars in 1990 when it took on the task of preserving a large quantity of land close to its headquarters on Colonel Sam Drive.

The land, near Second Marsh and Darlington Provincial Park, is called the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve, after the founding family of GM.

“We will work with the City of Oshawa on this large parkland donation that will join Oshawa’s waterfront trail systems and provide open, protected park and waterfront access for all Oshawa citizens to enjoy,” says GM Canada president and managing director Travis Hester.

“We are making these parkland donations as a symbol of GM’s longstanding sustainability partnership with the Oshawa community. We plan to be here for many more years to come.”

The history of the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve isn’t complete without exploring the city’s roots into the automobile industry.

Once known as the “Automotive Capital of Canada,” the industry inspired Oshawa’s previous mottos – “The City that Motovates Canada,” and “The City in Motion.”

The company dates back to 1876 when Robert McLaughlin founded the McLaughlin Carriage Company.

Years down the road and with the help of his son Col. Sam McLaughlin and many business partners, the well-known General Motors of Canada became open for business.

The main headquarters of the company was built and still stands in Oshawa.

The McLaughlin family have left an imprint on the City of Oshawa from the making of the automobile company to the creation of the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve.

Oshawa has a rich history pertaining to the fight to protect and preserve the city’s conservation areas and wetlands.

More specifically, significant efforts have been made toward nurturing the Second Marsh and the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve.

According to Jim Richards, a long time community activist and naturalist, GM originally had other plans for the property.

Richards said that in 1988, GM considered constructing a new corporate office building at the location next to Second Marsh which would be visible from Hwy. 401.

He said the 81 hectares of vacant land was on an abandoned dairy farm near Second Marsh and Darlington Provincial Park.

At the time, Richards worked for GM as an inspector, but he was also the leader of a not-for-profit charitable organization called Friends of Second Marsh, a position he continued to hold for 32 years.

After hearing about the company’s plans from lawyers who worked for GM, Richards issued a statement to the media voicing his concerns. Richards recalls some with the company weren’t very happy with him.

“One day at work, I was approached by the manager of GM at the time – Don Blight (who is now deceased). I had never met him before then, but I knew who he was from the look of him,” said Richards.

“He approached me and asked what the company could do to please me. This was a cold question, quite out of the blue and I think he asked it because he didn’t want any controversy in the matter. I said to him that GM should forget whatever plans they had for the farm.”

Richards said Blight asked him to attend a meeting with some senior officials from the company. He said that it was an informal meeting where he could ask his questions and get them answered. Blight, company president the-late George Peapples, GM lawyers, and members from the engineer department were present.

They discussed the scale model of the office building, which according to Richards, was not much different from the original design.

Richards described the building as “quite modern for the city at the time,” and “nice looking,” but he didn’t like how tall it was.

The building was allegedly planned to be nine storeys high with large open windows. It would be located on the highest plateau of the property overlooking the Second Marsh.

Richards voiced concerns about migrating birds who would be killed by flying into high glass windows.

“Migrating birds fly low under the clouds or a few feet above the water, and any lights on in the building would be responsible for killing them,” said Richards.

Night-migrating birds often confuse artificial lighting with starlight because they use starlight as part of their navigation system. When birds see artificial light in large windows, they can become dazed and disoriented, and this is when a collision could occur.

Richards was opposed to this plan, but told the company they could proceed if they wanted a bad reputation.

He said he was pulled into more meetings afterwards where ideas and thoughts were kicked around and explored in more depth.

According to Richards, an interesting proposal was offered that involved the company giving him a blank cheque and hiring him as an environmental consultant. According to him, GM’s reasoning was that if they hired someone else, there was a chance that Richards wouldn’t like them in a year, and in the process, because the company didn’t want to fight with him, they would lose money.

Richards was skeptical at first but he eventually accepted the proposal, and with the help of Mike Singleton, a well-respected naturalist and environmentalist, they put together a plan in approximately one year.

Richards and Singleton took their “master plan” back to GM in a meeting with Peapples. The plan outlined how they would install a garden centre, buy trees and shrubs and pay people to plant them. Richards was interested in hiring volunteers like boy scouts and girl guides, or people interested in community service work.

According to Richards, most people in the meeting thought his idea was great, but one person mentioned that the company is in the business of cars, not planting trees, so the proposal was denied.

Instead, Peapples suggested that Richards leave his position at GM and put all his time towards managing the company’s land near the marsh.

By this time, Richards had formed a trusting friendship with Blight. They would often talk in Blight’s home about the issues going on at GM. The offer from Peapples was one of the things they discussed.

Richards said he was initially put off by the offer because he thought the community was going to think the company bought him off, and his reputation was more valuable than a job offer.

Blight responded by saying he should give the job more thought and that it was a great opportunity to make a positive change to the city’s environment.

Blight told him, “Put your money where your mouth is.”

After a long process, Richards accepted the job as manager of the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve.

Three years in a row from 1990 to 1992, Richards had massive community support with approximately 900 people planting trees and shrubs, creating walking trails and ponds, and developing signage.

One of the most memorable events for Richards was partnering with the Canada National Institute for the Blind to create a design for a sensory trail.

According to Richards, this was a trail for people to touch and hear the things happening around them. They would be able to feel the bark and leaves on trees or shrubs, and listen to birds chirping or the hum of frogs and other wildlife creatures.

“The people at the institute were keen on the idea of the trail, but they had never done anything like that themselves, so they didn’t know what to do but advise   me.  They  were good about encouraging me about my dream,” said Richards.

According to Richards, he took off for a few days to a park in Cape Cod, Mass. after he received a phone call about how the park developed their own sensory trail.

The trail in Cape Cod ended up being the inspiration for the one in GM’s reserve.

Posts one inch in diameter were hammered into the ground on the side of the trail and from post to post, a rope guide would lead a person to a Braille and English-inscribed sign to read about the different kind of wildlife in the reserve. Sometimes, the signs would leave directions to touch different kinds of trees or shrubs.

The trail is still open to this day.

Richards was satisfied with the work he had done, so he developed a program where he would travel to public schools across Durham Region and present his work to students and teachers.

For years he would lead classes through the trails and talk about the wildlife in the reserve.

According to Richards, after a while maintenance to the reserve became minimal and his job had become redundant, so in 2005 he officially retired as manager of the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve.

Richards said the beginning of his activist days started with his leadership of Friends of Second Marsh, and that was the reason why he fought so hard to protect the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve from demolition.

Going back to the 1960s, Richards led a group called the Second Marsh Defense Association (which would later be changed to Friends of Second Marsh) to save the Second Marsh after it was turned over to the Oshawa Harbour Commission.

According to Richards, the OHC was dumping dredgeate excavated from the harbour into the marsh which was damaging the ecosystem.

“The water depth was decreasing, habitats were being lost – the environment in the wetlands was degrading,” said Richards.

Richards said the OHC also had plans to dredge out the marsh to build a new harbour on top of it.

The activist gathered hunters, fishers and fellow supporters to protest the Harbour’s development of Second Marsh, but it took years until they saw any success.

According to Richards, the federal government grew tired of fighting with the organization

and in December 1984, the federal Ministry of Transport declared the Second Marsh as surplus land, and the ownership of the marsh was slowly transferred to the City of Oshawa.

Richards said the city didn’t know what to do with the lands, so they appointed a steering committee of 10 representatives from government and non-government organizations (including himself) to prepare for a management plan.

The plan was developed in 1992 and since then, significant changes have occurred at the marsh, so a newly updated plan was made to help guide the stewardship for the next 10 to 20 years.

The new management plan will consider factors like invasive species such as the Emerald Ash Borer and urban development in north Oshawa.

Richards notes that the best time to visit Second Marsh or the McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve is during May and June when bird migration is in full swing.

These areas are home to more than 380 plant species, 305 bird species, and numerous species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects.

Richards hopes that the city will take good care of the reserve when GM places it into their care.

“During one of my many meetings with Blight, I had requested that once the lands were transformed into a place of passive recreation (walking, hiking, birdwatching, photography, etc.), they should remain as such in perpetuity,” Richards said.

“Blight agreed, and I asked that steps be taken to ensure this. I can only assume now that this was done.”