by Conor Mihell

Standing tall just north of Sault Ste. Marie, a unique forest ecosystem of sugar maple and yellow birch blankets the slopes of one of Ontario’s highest peaks, the aptly named King Mountain. Despite the presence of several rare plant species in the 1,050 hectares of hillside, the land was unprotected and could have been sold to logging companies. Instead, the Algoma Highlands Conservancy (AHC) has partnered with Europe-based Astina Establishment, which owns the property, to get first dibs on the sale of the forested site.

The arrangement also includes exclusive access to a 180-kilometre-long network of cross-country ski trails on Astina land. Doug Pitt, president of AHC and a Canadian Forest Service researcher, says the organization’s efforts to raise the $1.5 million required to purchase the King Mountain parcel are now in full swing.

King Mountain is the most recent addition to the 19,400 hectares Astina Establishment owns in the mixed-forest hills north of Sault Ste. Marie. The AHC began negotiations with Astina last spring to purchase the King Mountain portion of the property and promote strong environmental values in the remainder. Pitt says Astina has been open to the a AHC’s conservation objectives.

“It’s the partnership between Astina and the AHC that has prevented the area from being purchased by loggers with short-term goals,” says Pitt. “It’s not just the AHC that is the good guy here; it’s the AHC and Astina working together.”

While the agreement allows Astina to selectively log its property, it outlaws snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. More importantly, Pitt says the agreement will ensure that pockets of provincially rare Braun’s holly fern, oval-leaved bilberry and northern wild licorice – the latter two known to exist only in the King Mountain area – are protected.

The AHC has another year and a half to raise the funds to take full ownership. King Mountain will be the largest parcel of land the a AHC has acquired. It already owns 120 hectares at nearby Robertson Cliffs, an important peregrine falcon nesting area, and has a conservation easement on another 120 hectares adjacent to Stokely Creek Lodge, a Nordic ski facility. The easement places restrictions on logging practices and prohibits the use of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

Of the AHC ‘s successes north of Sault Ste. Marie, Pitt says, “It’s an opportunity for a unique combination of sustainable forest management and conservation that will allow this treasured property to be protected for its ecological, educational and recreational values.”