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Conserving a pristine upper Lake Huron island

The Nature Conservancy of Canada , a charitable organization, hopes to raise $15- million it requires to purchase 60 per cent of Cockburn Island in Lake Huron. for conservation purposes, September 5, 2012. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

A Canadian organization is angling to buy part of a Lake Huron island in a bid to protect 9,712 hectares (24,000 acres) of barely touched land from encroaching cottage and industrial development.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada says it has until mid-December to seal a $15.2-million deal to purchase about 60 per cent of Cockburn Island, a wooded area just three kilometres west of Manitoulin Island in the upper reaches of Lake Huron.

The forest on Cockburn Island, combined with a variety of rock- and sand-covered shorelines, diverse wetlands and river systems, make the island a uniquely enticing spot to set aside for conservation, said James Duncan, a regional vice-president for the Conservancy in Ontario.

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"It's an opportunity that we simply cannot pass up," he said. "To be able to capture, you know, an entire wilderness that represents how these places were before humans and before development is really unique."

In fact, part of the forest was logged and cleared in late 19th century, but it was allowed to grow back naturally after that, he added.

Part of the island is occupied by a small cluster of cottages and a first nation reserve. The portion the conservancy hopes to buy belongs to Huron Timber Co., an American-owned business that has left much of the forest intact.

Reached on Wednesday, a councillor from the island's Zhiibaahaasing First Nation said she didn't know much about the conservancy's plans to purchase part of the island and was not immediately prepared to comment on them. The first nation has no outstanding land claim in the area the conservancy hopes to buy, she said.

On a sunny September morning, the deep blue water around Cockburn Island shimmered in the sunlight. Cedar trees line the shore, flanked by a mix of birch, maple, oak and American beech trees. Most of the island is blanketed in forest. Mr. Duncan has brought three prospective donors to this island by small aircraft in recent months, hoping he can leverage its beauty into large-scale donations that will help the organization conserve it.

Just a few kilometres away, on the western end of Manitoulin Island, he pointed out a large-scale quarry operation that has scraped away the earth and trees and left a layer of valuable limestone exposed. Mr. Duncan said he believes Cockburn Island would be a likely candidate for a similar quarry in the future if the land isn't protected.

"We have one chance and only one chance to conserve this area," he told reporters on a recent flight over the area.

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The conservancy is a not-for-profit organization that acquires land, often through a purchase or donation, and manages it over the long term. If the group is able to purchase the land on Cockburn Island, it will be in a good position to help document how plant and animal species are affected by future changes in water quality and water levels, Mr. Duncan said.

Pat Chow-Fraser, a biology professor at McMaster University who studies the Great Lakes, said they are changing rapidly as more people build large-scale cottages and homes along the shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. While she's not immediately familiar with Cockburn Island, she said it would be useful to have a reference location in the area that's preserved to give researchers a point of comparison in the future. "If you don't keep some of it in a wilderness state," she said, "you'll never know what you've lost."

Mr. Duncan said the Conservancy hasn't worked out the details of how the land will be managed, but would consider adding a trail system to facilitate public access to the land if the deal is successful. "The vision would be that it's available for folks to come up and marvel at," he said.

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