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The exodus begins in short weekend bursts, marked by lunchtime lineups at Weber's, and the occasional pair of bare feet dangling from the window of an overstuffed car creeping northward on Highway 11.

It's fitting that the promised land of Muskoka begins at the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Balance, after all, is what stressed-out city dwellers seek here each summer, amid the pines and pretty lakes. Still, with paradise comes a paradox: The more rare and beautiful the place, the more people want a piece of it, imperilling the very beauty that attracted them.

In Muskoka, it means more traffic on roads and waterways, more development plans for ever-fewer waterfront properties, more city-style stores on the fringes of its three main towns of Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville.

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At 72, Russ Black has lived here long enough -- more than half his life -- to see these pressures build, up close and personal. Now, the retired Toronto-born lawyer and former Bracebridge mayor is helping to relieve them.

Mr. Black is president of the Muskoka Heritage Trust, a non-profit group that encourages owners to set aside land for nature reserves. In just a few years, the trust has placed more than 700 acres (280 hectares) under permanent protection, with agreements pending on hundreds more.

Nature lovers will be allowed to roam the reserves, which will be marked with signs, as long as the visitors "take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints," Mr. Black says.

"People are beginning to become very much aware that either we protect the land, or else Muskoka's going to start looking like a suburb of Toronto. And that's not going to please too many people up here."

Mr. Black has as good a grasp as anyone on the value of Muskoka's natural beauty and the forces that threaten it. He and his wife, Audrey, live year-round on Eilean Gowan Island in Lake Muskoka, relying on a tough little metal boat to get them ashore from spring through fall, on snowmobiles in winter, and on a three-week stockpile of supplies for the times in between.

It's a long way from the St. Clair-Oakwood neighbourhood in west-end Toronto where Mr. Black grew up. Even as a child he wasn't much for city life but found refuge on Lake Ontario, where he learned to sail as a Sea Scout at age 12.

After earning an engineering degree, he joined a construction firm and soon became wary in the world of big development.

"The contracts were complicated, and I didn't believe what some of the lawyers were telling me," he says. "So I took a couple of years off and went to law school."

He returned to the firm as a lawyer but decided to shuck the city in 1965, when he flipped through a periodical for lawyers and found an ad from a lawyer in Bracebridge looking for a junior attorney.

Married by then, with a two-year-old daughter, Mr. Black bought a house in town and soon afterward bought the ravine behind it to keep it away from developers.

At work, he specialized in municipal law, representing 17 of the 26 small municipalities that made up the District of Muskoka at the time. By 1994, the inefficiency inherent in those numbers had pushed him to the point of frustration. "I did something rather foolish," Mr. Black says. "I ran for political office, and I had the misfortune to get elected."

He won the Bracebridge mayoralty by 1,000 votes, without a single lawn sign or a door-knocking campaign. When he left office three years later, Muskoka had trimmed down to just seven municipalities, with the upper-tier district holding most of the power.

With time on his hands, Mr. Black, who had since moved to the island, took a closer look at the Muskoka Heritage Foundation, an all-volunteer group founded in 1987 to conserve the area's natural and built history.

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And when he heard about the foundation's land trust, he hiked over for a chat with his island neighbour, Jack McVittie.

In his 80s then, Mr. McVittie was struggling over the fate of the 253 forested acres (102 hectares) he owned in the centre of the island. A few chats later, he signed it over to the trust, and Mr. Black had secured its first nature reserve, right in his own backyard.

Mr. McVittie has died, but there are few days when Mr. Black isn't in those woods, treading lightly over last year's leaves, stepping around the deer droppings, breathing easier now that he knows this forest will be here long after he's gone.

In the meantime, it's a feat he intends to repeat as many times as he can, bolstered by the increasing support of year-round neighbours and cottagers alike, many of whom opened not only their minds but their wallets to the group's efforts.

"These people are aware and intelligent and know that you can't depend on government to do it for you," he says. "We have been lucky, because we have achieved credibility."

This column is the first in a series of reports that Anthony Reinhart will file from cottage country.

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areinhart@globeandmail.ca

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