Ensuring Our Most Important Environmental Areas Are Protected

The Schneider family in Wilmot Township has spent decades stewarding their extensive ecologically sensitive lands. The community’s response to the family’s call to action to urge Wilmot Township Council to finally approve the necessary planning applications that would facilitate the donation of more than 230 acres of these lands to the rare Charitable Research Reserve has been overwhelmingly positive, with hundreds of letters, calls and e-mails to Wilmot Councillors urging action. Thank you to everyone who has taken action to help see these lands forever protected.  

Many ideas have been proposed, and there are questions about the donation and the call to action that we want to address.

The area commonly referred to as Schneider’s Woods is made up of numerous properties owned by Schneider family members and is one of the largest remaining areas of contiguous significant natural habitat in the Region of Waterloo. Located at the heart of the Laurel Creek Headwaters Environmentally Sensitive Landscape (ESL), it has tremendous value for wildlife and ecological integrity in the area, including dozens of Species at Risk, such as rare butterflies and birds, endangered reptiles, and threatened flora. Conservation and protection of this incredible habitat will remain the priority after rare obtains ownership of the lands, which will be conveyed as a donation through the federal EcoGifts program.

In addition to its ecological significance, the property has a network of trails that the family has made available to the community of Wilmot and surrounding areas for recreational activities, including bird watching, summer hiking and winter cross-country skiing free of charge for over 40 years.

Respecting the wishes of the Schneider family, rare will not advertise the recreational use of the property on their website or in other traditional or social media to avoid overcrowding the trails and increasing human pressure on wildlife. Indeed, after consulting with the donors, rare plans to streamline the existing trail network to reduce habitat fragmentation and improve the health of this ecosystem.

What is holding up theprocessing of rare’s planning application in a timely fashion is Wilmot Township’s demands for a parking solution. We only learned when the project was brought forward to Council that they are seeking to have a 12-car parking lot built on these lands. What is particularly confounding is that such a lot won’t replace current parking arrangements and significant on-road parking will still be required. The parking lot also creates a myriad of issues.

Comparing the parking situation at Schneider Woods with rare’s lots in Cambridge is comparing apples to oranges. Currently, rare only has formal visitor parking on lands with major visitor facilities on them, such as buildings with classrooms and other gathering spaces. This includes parking for events at the Slit Barn which can see 200 people arrive and leave at the same time. This is completely different from the needs of the Schneider Property. Blair Road is also a major thoroughfare which sees well over 15,000 cars per day, whereas the roads around Schneider Woods are rural gravel roads that see a small fraction of that.

For most of our trails, legal roadside parking is sufficient for access. This is the case for many other properties with trails throughout the Region and beyond, such as many access points for the Avon Trail and properties owned by other environmental organizations. It is also the case with the Schneider Property, where roadside parking along surrounding roads has worked successfully for the past forty years.

Building a parking lot to serve the Schneider property is problematic and challenging.  These are forested, hilly lands, and most open space is wetlands.  Building a parking lot would require the removal of mature trees and bulldozing fill into the wetlands to level the topography, which would devastate the immediate area and disrupt nearby wetlands and woodlands.

Worse yet are the negative impacts of erosion and natural degradation of concentrating most visitors to one part of the property. The Schneider family has worked hard to limit human impact on the land, opening numerous entrances along four different roads to help distribute visitors across the property. The creation of a single primary parking area could create significant over-use issues. The creation of many parking lots in such a hilly area would create even more environmental destruction.

Any new parking areas would be financially expensive to construct and then need to be maintained and policed from unwanted activities such as illegal dumping. Parking lots must be maintained in the summer and plowed in winter as well as possibly salted, given the hilly nature of the area, which could be devastating to wetlands and groundwater aquifers in such an environmentally sensitive area. Instead of focusing on funding for ongoing stewardship, all of this would increase the ongoing cost of maintaining the lands for infrastructure that isn’t needed, and whose construction is contrary to the Schneider Family’s desire to put conservation first and that these lands be preserved in their current state.

The rare Charitable Research Reserve is a not-for-profit charity, and we make it a point not to charge for access to any of our sites – nature should not be a commodity but something freely accessible to all. Since we don’t ask for admission fees, we derive no revenue from public access and, therefore, strive to keep maintenance costs for public infrastructure to a minimum. In addition, our donors prefer to see their contributions spent on stewardship that keeps nature thriving, as opposed to building expensive infrastructure that disrupts and destroys nature. This said, the primary issues are not about fundraising but about the undesirable side-effects that a parking lot or parking lots have on the local environment.

Instead of debating the unnecessary construction of a parking lot that leads to a lot of other issues, we ask that all parties work together to determine a long-term vision and master strategy, not just for Schneider Woods but for this amazing part of the Waterloo Moraine which also contains significant City of Waterloo owned-lands, a Regional forest, numerous ESPA and provincially significant wetland areas whose conservation and recreational use are vital to the health and sustainability of our communities. Examples include better trail connections to nearby neighbourhoods such as Columbia Forest and Vista Hills, traffic calming, speed reductions and other measures to further improve the current roadside parking situation.

A parking lot is a short-sighted stop-gap measure proposed to satisfy one municipality’s concern over potential liability. A long-term vision has the potential to turn the area into even more of a treasure for Wilmot and Waterloo. These are plans that we can continue to discuss and implement after the donation takes place, but we need to move forward on this land donation now, or it will be too late.

Jane Schneider is well into her nineties and needs to see the donation that she and her husband Fred worked on for so many years become a reality in her lifetime. It would be a shame if the public were deprived of such a unique, special gift simply because of Wilmot Township’s demands and delays.

We are eager for solutions and have put years of effort into the protection of these lands already. We hope that everyone in our community will continue to work together in a fast and efficient manner to see this incredible land donation completed as quickly as possible.

Photos: (Feature) The City of Waterloo’s Skyline in a sunrise, as seen from Schneider Woods, taken by Phil Drennan on April 24, 2021, used with permission.
(Below) Deer in Schneider Woods, taken by Phil Drennan on May 11, 2021, used with permission.