EBC takes ownership of Willisville Mountain

EBC’s Ted Cowan cuts a ceremonial ribbon next to Jon Butler, celebrating the conservancy’s recent purchase of Willisville Mountain. Holding the ribbon on the left side is Vale superintendent of environment, soil and water Gary Remington. photo by Warren Schlote

WILLISVILLE – A contingent of 13 intrepid explorers summited a favourite landmark of the Group of Seven Saturday to celebrate the recently-completed purchase of the former Vale-owned Willisville Mountain by the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC).

“It feels pretty good to have this completed. To put it in the pantheon of our projects, this ranks up with our acquisition of the Cup and Saucer. They’re similar in size and the Cup and Saucer draws more than 10,000 people annually. We think this trail has that potential,” said Bob Barnett, executive director of EBC.

The new EBC property is 235 acres in size, comprising nearly all of the area surrounding Willisville Mountain except a parcel of 13 acres close to the highway. The land officially transferred to EBC just last week.

Global mining corporation Vale was the previous owner of the mountain. The land was owned by INCO since at least the 1920s and that ownership has persisted through mergers and acquisitions until this divestment by the present owner, Vale.

Vale Ontario’s superintendent of environment, soil and water Gary Remington was present to celebrate the new ownership of the lands and join in on the hike to the summit.

“A few years back (in approximately 2015), Vale made the decision to start looking at divesting some of its surplus properties across Greater Sudbury,” he said. “Timing is everything. Right when we were talking about this property, Bob (Barnett) and Ted (Cowan, former head of EBC and a current board member) contacted us and said they were interested in purchasing the property.”

This was Mr. Remington’s first time up to Willisville Mountain and he remarked at the beauty of the location, vowing to return with his family in the near future. Vale still owns and operates Lawson Quarry at a neighbouring rock peak which can be plainly seen from Willisville Mountain. That quarry, however, has been able to produce enough quartzite and dolostone to cover all the company’s needs without having to break ground on the other mountain.

Since November 2017, EBC has been pushing strongly to raise enough funds to purchase the land and conduct all the necessary work required to finalize the sale. EBC bought the property for a total sum of $158,000 and the surveying alone—which took six months to complete—cost about $25,000.

In addition to its public and member fundraising appeal, EBC received grants from the Laidlaw Foundation, Helen McCrea Peacock Foundation, community groups such as the Bay of Islands Community Association and McGregor Bay Association, as well as a private landowner in the Bay of Islands who contributed $10,000 alone. An October 24, 2018 report in this newspaper cited the fundraising up to that point as being between $185,000 and $195,000.

“Our fundraising came within a few dollars of what we actually needed. It’s worked out really well,” said Mr. Cowan.

“On behalf of Vale, we’re very proud to be a part of this,” said Mr. Remington after reaching the summit and getting ready to cut a ceremonial ribbon with the EBC crew. “Hopefully, future generations can enjoy the spectacular vistas from here.”

Mr. Cowan said the mining company was excellent to work with and that he was excited for what this milestone meant for the community.

Following a pause for everyone to catch their breath and soak up the views on the spectacular sunny afternoon, the group decided to head down the back way off the mountain in a longer, gentler loop that returned just steps up the road from where the main entrance begins. That back trail wound through a brief rock tunnel and skirted the land where the former fire ranger’s cabin was once located back when a fire tower was still stationed atop Willisville Mountain.

Those trails will have to be charted and marked in a more standardized way, and the parking area will need to be expanded to allow for more than six vehicles. The main trail up the mountain has been marked by a small group of citizens for the past 55 years—as fate would have it, when Mr. Barnett stopped in at the trail earlier that morning, he met those people who happened to be walking down from the mountaintop.

The hikers regrouped in Whitefish Falls to celebrate the milestone with champagne and some snacks before everyone began to part ways. At the celebration, Mr. Barnett offered a glimpse at EBC’s next plan, even more ambitious than Willisville Mountain—Skyline Nature Reserve. 

This land is situated across Highway 6 from Willisville Mountain and includes two mountains within its 1,983 acres—almost 10 times larger than the Willisville tract.

Mr. Barnett said he welcomes pledges from anyone and everyone to help purchase the property, which is currently valued at $2.5 million.