/Old growth area in HF makes national history
HFWR managing director Malcolm Cockwell explains the importance of conserving the Freezy Lake old growth forest.

Old growth area in HF makes national history

By Vivian Collings

Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve leads the way for other private forests by becoming the first commercially-owned forest to receive conservation status in Canada.

After partnering with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), the 20 hectare, South Freezy Lake old growth area owned by HFWR is now in the Canadian Protected and Conserved Areas database and considered an other effective area-based conservation measure (OECM), contributing to the county’s goal of protecting 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030.

A celebration was held at the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre to recognize the accomplishment.

Malcolm Cockwell, managing director of HFWR

“Haliburton Forest has a very long history of conservation, and this accomplishment, establishing the first OECM on private land in Ontario, is the latest step in a very long journey,”  Cockwell said. “Nature Conservancy of Canada is a good partner, and we’ve done a good thing.”

“In every instance, my colleagues and I have been impressed by their practical approach to land management and conservation both on their own properties … but also, and especially, on the properties of their partners.”

“It is a really special area that deserves to be protected.”

The South Freezy Lake area is difficult to access, and Cockwell said this is one of the main reasons why it has never been harvested in history.

Although the OECM is 50 acres, Cockwell said it is part of a 300 acre “area of significance.”

It is surrounded by wetlands and steep cliffs.

“It is forest that’s never, ever, in the history of time, as far as we know, been subject to any kind of industrial activity, any kind of harvesting. Not that there’s anything wrong with harvesting inherently, obviously as a company we do a lot of it ourselves, but there’s something very special about areas that have never been harvested,” Cockwell said. “At Haliburton Forest, typically when we find old growth, we protect it.”

He also said there has been limited, intermittent hiking and hunting within this area.

“As a result, the area has many of the classic, old growth features. It’s quite impressive when you get into it.”

One of the most distinguishing aspects is “big, old trees.”

Cockwell said because the area’s never been logged, there is a lot of dead wood.

“This is very significant from an environmental point of view,” Cockwell said.

“If you take a living tree by weight, maybe five to 10 per cent of that tree is alive. If you take a dead tree, a tree that’s on the ground, rotting, by weight, maybe 30 per cent of it is alive because you’ve got it full of insects, fungi, bacteria, salamanders, and related animals. Decaying, dying wood is one of the most important, vital parts of a forest ecosystem, and in an old growth forest, you end up with a lot of that,” Cockwell said to the Echo.

He also said the pit and mound soil structure is considerable because many trees have fallen and created mounds of soil.

“This creates micro-habitats that you don’t typically see to the same extent in a managed forest area.”

The managing director said typically they will come across smaller pockets of old growth forest, which makes the Freezy Lake area so significant.

“It’s not a reasonable management objective for the entirety of Haliburton Forest or Haliburton County to become old growth, its that old growth has become so important because there’s so little of it,” Cockwell said.

The South Freezy Lake area will now be protected for the future under the OECM.

NCC is a non-profit organization that aims to deliver “large-scale, permanent land conservation in the country.”

Kristyn Ferguson, program director for Large Landscapes with NCC in Ontario, has been HFWR’s main contact during this process.

She explained an OECM as “a relatively new conservation tool. It’s an international conservation tool that acknowledges when lands are delivering conservation outcomes, even though conservation may not be the primary intention.”

Ferguson visited the South Freezy Lake area in 2023.

“I remember the big trees. I remember the birdsong ringing out from the canopy. I remember the butterflies fluttering around me, and the amazing diversity of plants all around my feet … 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,” Ferguson said.

NCC hopes this will kick start a movement of other privately-owned forests to take the initiative and designate part of their land and waters as a conservation area.

“This is important,” Ferguson said. “This gives a chance to inspire others to come along for a similar journey. It’s so important to recognize the amount of conservation happening in Canada to help us understand where we can be protecting more lands, recognizing more lands.”

“We’re in a bit of a race to have 30 per cent of our lands and waters protected by 2030, so its things like this that are going to get us there.”