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“I’m just a housewife and grandmother. »
Margot Heyerhoff is modest. Too modest.
This granny managed the feat of convincing wealthy landowners to sell — or donate outright — their vast land to an ecological conservation fund, slowing the momentum of real estate developers eyeing a corner of paradise.
An area of 1,200 acres (almost 485 hectares), equivalent to 900 American football fields, has been protected so far. And the Massawippi Foundation, of which she is president — as well as the trust of the same name — doesn’t want to stop.
“If I had known how much work it would involve, I certainly wouldn’t have gotten into it,” she says, before breaking out in laughter.
“It’s really hard, long-term work,” she adds more seriously.
The 69-year-old grandmother welcomes us in the barn behind her house, which has been converted into an artist’s studio. From his farm, just a few miles from the village of North Hatley in the Eastern Townships, there is a magnificent view of the Lake Massawippi valley.
Pinned to one wall of the workshop, the tall lady with immaculate white hair has a humorous postcard on which a woman exclaims with a smile, “Remind me not to contact you again. »
The fact is that certain negotiations with the owners or sometimes their heirs have dragged on for months, even years.
Mme Heyerhoff pulls out a large laminated map of private properties on the edge of the lake. Each red area represents land that is now protected.
First, there was this woman from New York — who is now 100 years old — who offered a small five-and-a-half-acre lot just off the lake. Then three of American’s neighbors granted easements to protect over 220 additional acres. The movement was born.
“The owner of this one was a real estate developer,” she says, pointing to 57 acres of land with lake access. “He was difficult to convince. He didn’t want to give us a present,” she said, still smiling.
This developer had decided he was too old to share the land, but was in a hurry to sell it. “Find $1.2 million in six months — mortgage-free — and it’s yours,” he said.me Heyerhoff.
It was a race against time to collect the sum. “I called a lot of friends,” she recalls, adding that other allies and “valuable” volunteers have worked alongside her since the project began.
“I would never have been able to do it on my own,” she asserts (modestly, it was said).
The grandmother is persistent and persuasive. To a landlord looking to sell a property — including a house, a boathouse on the lake, and a huge wooded lot — to the highest bidder, she suggested making three sales instead of one.
“It was a win-win situation,” she says. One person bought the house, another the boathouse, and the Trust got a portion of the land to keep. In the end, the seller probably made as much, if not more, money. »
Hiking trails have been developed (more than 8 km to date) on land in the forest acquired near Saint-Catherine-de-Hatley. Another trail (1.5 miles) has been created in a protected park in North Hatley. A third is being built at Stanstead-Est near Burrough Falls.
The foundation has hired a trail designer of Cree origin. “He is a genius! calls m.me Heyerhoff, he creates sustainable paths with the least possible impairment of flora and fauna. »
During the pandemic, these routes were adopted. “Our trails have had a positive impact on the mental and physical health of the community,” she notes.
The communities — five around the lake — were initially skeptical about the Fiducie project, she says, because it would deprive them of potential property taxes.
But in 11 years mentalities have evolved, notes Mme Heyerhoff.
The municipalities realized that this was not a loss, but a gift for their people and added to the townships’ image.
A public beach developed by the foundation in 2020 is now accessible by canoe or on foot. This project was important because public access to the lake is very rare in the area, she explains.
“We protect what we love”
So how did this “housewife” – and painter, let’s emphasize it, even if it bothers her – come to knock on the doors of wealthy landowners and other patrons to convince them to protect nature?
“We protect what we love,” she replies, quoting oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
Mme Heyerhoff was born in Montreal and grew up in Toronto. As a teenager, his parents sent him to boarding school in Compton, in the Eastern Townships. This is the beginning of his love affair with the region. Then she studied at Bishop’s University, where she would later work again. “For me it is the most beautiful place in the world. »
In 2000, she and her husband were living in Toronto with their two boys. She is visiting the region when she sees this lovely organic farm in a rural area of Canton Hatley.
The couple bought it to have a pied-à-terre in their favorite region. Two years later her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and decided to retire. The family leaves Toronto to settle on the farm.
sense of urgency
For 11 years Mr.me Heyerhoff and his accomplices are driven by a sense of urgency. “Many of the owners are older people. You have to convince them before they die, because after that it’s often too late; we’re losing ground. It is sold by the heirs to the highest bidder. »
The lands on the west side of the lake have a high ecological value. The foundation has also partnered with researchers from the Université de Sherbrooke, in addition to their membership in the Corridor Appalachia organization, to study the fauna and flora there.
Several species that are threatened in Canada have already been listed there, including birds – the eastern piou – and certain stream salamanders (the northern dusky and purple salamanders).
Beginning in the fall, the foundation will offer three annual visits to the trails to eight local elementary schools to help young people connect with nature. “Children will see the forest in three different seasons,” she marvels.
Do people from the surrounding communities have to thank you when they pass you? we ask m.me Heyerhoff. “They’re changing sidewalks,” she said, laughing again. They know that I will ask them for donations. »
One of his grandchildren, a 5-year-old boy with the same piercing blue eyes, was visiting his grandmother The press.
Several times during the interview, she gives him affectionate looks as he chalks on the floor. It’s a bit – a lot – for her generation and those to come that she devotes all her time to this cause.
“I feel the climate emergency,” says the grandmother. I cannot save the world, but I can act around me and hope that others will act around them. »