Ontario Nature celebrated 80 years of protecting wild species and wild spaces at our annual general meeting last June. One of the highlights of our gathering at the Ganaraska Forest Centre on the Oak Ridges Moraine was presenting our conservation awards to eight individuals and groups that have made exceptional contributions to natural habitat protection.

This year’s conservation heroes tell us about their vision for a greener Ontario:

Jim Johnston, recipient of the Ontario Nature Achievement Award, spearheaded the development of the Elliot Lake Bear Smart Project from 2003 to 2004, which subsequently became the Ministry of Natural Resource’s Bear Wise Program. “Before that program, people didn’t have to put their garbage in sealed containers outside, they had it in bags,” says Johnston. “We improved the management practices at the local waste dump and converted all the containers in our parks to bear-proof ones.” Thanks to Johnston’s program, nuisance calls about bears in the Elliot Lake area decreased from some 530 calls in 2004 to less than half that in 2010.

Jane and Fred Schneider were awarded the W.W.H. Gunn Conservation Award for their outstanding service and commitment to nature conservation. For more than three decades, the couple has welcomed visitors to their 300-hectare rural property outside Waterloo, which contains provincially significant swamps, woodlands and fields. “We’re trying to preserve the old forest and keep the trees healthy,” says Jane. The couple has been impressed with the absence of litter in the area despite the high volume of visitors, demonstrating that the “the younger generation is taking good care of the property.”

Christine Hanrahan received the W.E. Saunders Natural History Award for her efforts to protect Larose Forest and her work on the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. Hanrahan and others hold an annual community day to introduce people to the forest, and every two years she oversees the organization of a forest bioblitz, using the resulting data to inform best practices for managing the Larose Forest. “As it’s a working forest, this data is used by various organizations to see where the birds are and accordingly decide where not to log,” says

The Steve Hounsell Greenway Award recipients – Iris McGee, Renee Sandelowsky and Allan Elgar – founded the Oakvillegreen Conservation Association more than 10 years ago in response to a proposal to urbanize 3,000 hectares of agricultural land in north Oakville. For McGee it has been quite a ride: “Taking that first step to attend a council meeting or write a letter to your local newspaper or councillor can set you on a journey toward making positive change.” She believes that forests, fields and streams should be protected through proper zoning so that taxpayers do not have to buy land to protect it.

The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), established in 1993 by Michael Mesure and a team of volunteers, won the J.R. Dymond Public Service Award for the group’s efforts to provide safe passage for migratory songbirds in the urban environment. Annually, between one and 10 birds will die in collisions with any single building. With 940,000 registered structures in Toronto, a conservative estimate would be that between approximately one and 10 million birds die annually. “This is a David and Goliath story, but the simplicity of the solution really resonates with people,” says Mesure. “It could be easily resolved with the flip of a switch at night and placing some markers on the glass during the day.”

The Lee Symmes Municipal Award was awarded to the County of Northumberland for its comprehensive forest management plan for a 2,200-hectare forest on the Oak Ridges Moraine. By expanding a network of wooded conservation areas, the county supported a management approach guided by the spirit and intent of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act and corresponding plan. Says Mia Frankl, the county’s forestry management officer, “We hope to lead by example among municipal governments in preserving natural spaces and managing them first and foremost for their ecological significance, while still providing balanced use for social and economic values.”

The Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance received the Ontario Nature Corporate Award for its efforts to reduce its ecological footprint. Chief executive officer Andrew Williams realizes that, while the primary goal is to deliver health care, the alliance also feels responsible for making the workplace more environmentally friendly. “We look at this as part of our commitment to the broader community and see a logical connection here, as a healthy environment is closely tied to healthy people,” says Williams. The alliance has launched a number of energy conservation efforts at its four sites, including retrofitting lighting throughout the facilities, lowering energy use during times of peak demand and partnering with other organizations in progressive energy conservation programs.

Fraser Gibson won the Richards Education Award for fostering environmental values and actions in children throughout his career teaching outdoor and environmental education. Now retired, he continues to promote the importance of the natural world. “My overriding objective is to promote, in children and adults, respect for all life and habitat. Guided exploration of natural areas is a very important first step.”