Wye Marsh: A Gem Worthy of Your Support

Wye Marsh: A Gem Worthy of Your Support
By Jack Ellis


Raptor Demonstation: 
Laurie Schutt with Turkey Vulture 

Probably every cottager in this area has visited the Wye Marsh at some time or other, either with family or while entertaining friends, and we all have come to appreciate its role among the treasures of this area. This article takes you behind the scenes of its present state and encourages you all to support this gem in any way you can. Few of us realize what a struggle it faces just to keep functioning.

On a cloudy September day, Laurie Schutt, Executive Director of the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre, joins me at a table in the Centre’s foyer in the midst of her busy morning. Symptomatic of the 1960s building’s patched-up condition – which few visitors in 2007 ever realize – when she came in 2001, her office was only powered by extension cords! Nevertheless, her eyes sparkle as she relates what the Centre has achieved in recent years in the face of changing conditions, increasing demands, and no regular funding from any of the three levels of government.

The Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre operates an interpretive centre built and owned by Environment Canada on a 500 acre parcel that is now leased to Wye Marsh and designated by the federal government as a National Wildlife Area. It also manages, under a Land-Use Permit, a 2500 acre parcel of land in the Wye Valley surrounding the core site, which is owned by the Ontario Government and designated a Provincial Wildlife Area. At a property on Old Fort Road, Midland, the staff operate their Birds of Prey/Falconry programs. As outreach, they also offer “Wye Marsh Comes to You”, a very popular set of offsite programs.

Wye Marsh now operates year-round on a non-profit basis as a charitable organization titled “Friends of Wye Marsh” which is totally dependent on income from admissions, memberships, and donations. But it wasn’t always that way.

Early History Evolved Into Financial Headaches
The Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre opened in 1969 as a flagship environmental project of the federal government, one of a rash of such projects celebrating the heady year of Canada’s Centennial.

Initially run and fully funded by the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada, Wye Marsh became a significant factor not only in conservation of a sensitive natural environment, but also a major addition to the array of tourism attractions of the Huronia area.

But in 1985, the federal government decided to close the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre. 

Local supporters were incensed that such a major natural and economic asset could be lost to the area, and rescued it by forming a Board and founding a registered charity – the Friends of Wye Marsh – to take over and continue the operation.

The federal and provincial governments retained their ownership of the lands and buildings, but washed their hands of ongoing operating and capital support. All the Marsh got was three years of partial bridge funding from Environment Canada.

Strange situations arise from the government ownership and regulation of the facilities. The governments can dictate what must or must not be done, but take no responsibility for funding their dictated actions.

For example, the federal government is responsible for capital repairs to the Centre and ancillary buildings, but is reluctant to fund them. Much of the Centre – built in the 1960s with no insulation as a 5-month operation – is not up to code for electrical, fire alarm, etc. There are leaks in the roof. The Marsh must either raise such funds itself or cajole the feds endlessly to fund these necessary actions.

Another example: part of the original federally constructed boardwalk recently needed replacing, 635 feet costing $100,000. The Marsh had to piece together several grant programs and monies from many donors to accomplish this.

The Wye Marsh is unique in both the federal and provincial categorization of “Wildlife Area”. It is the only one intended and used for visitation and interpretation of nature. The regulations of both governments are based on remote wildlife areas with little or no visitation, and prohibit all kinds of necessary management actions, such as controlling invasive species, operating programs, and so forth. 

Neither government has a framework that includes an entity such as the Wye Marsh, it seems. As a result, operating the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre has become an exercise in innovative grantsmanship and entrepreneurship. 

What Does Wye Marsh Accomplish Now?
The Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre is a first-class environmental awareness facility operating year-round programs. Its Mission Statement is “To spark a commitment to preserving wetlands, woodlands and wildlife by creating exciting learning opportunities in a natural setting.”

Wye Marsh is an important bird area, home to an amazing diversity of species including uncommon ones like Least Bittern, Black Tern and the Trumpeter Swan. The Marsh is also one of the best places in this area to observe beaver, porcupine, mink and river otter. Turtles, frogs and snakes abound and are often seen basking on warm summer days.

The Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre also conducts research and restoration. It initiated the effort to restore the majestic Trumpeter Swans that had become extinct in Ontario. Starting with one captive pair in the late 1980’s, dedicated staff and volunteers worked hard to raise and care for these swans. Wye Marsh now cares for and monitors a wild population of over one-third of the approximately 1000 Trumpeters now nesting all over southern Ontario. Some of them make their home in the waters of Wye Marsh and can be seen from the walking berms or from the observation tower. 

The Marsh is open year round for walks, hikes and other outdoor activities to the casual visitor. It also offers a large array of educational programs for schools.
Recently Wye Marsh completed a sustainable energy project by installing two very different wind turbines. On top of a 104 foot tower is a 1.0 kW Bergey turbine and on top of another tower of 30 feet is a 1.8 kW Skystream turbine. These turbines will be used for educational programs for both schools (grades 5 and 10) and the general public. In July and August once a week there was a ‘wind walk’ up to the field with an explanation of the project. One-day workshops enable people to learn more about sustainable energy. 

One turbine is an off grid application while the other turbine has a grid tie where the power generated goes directly into hydro lines. All the electricity generated will feed the Wye Marsh grid, providing approximately 10% of its power needs. A white board located beside the instrument shed records data such as kWhs produced, wind speed, noise level, number of birds/bats killed, and ground temperature.

This project required many long volunteer hours and a crew donated by Tay Township. Funding was received from the Ministry of Energy, Midland PUC, and SHELL Environmental. 

Over the last six years that Laurie Schutt has been involved with the Marsh, attendance has increased 10-12% per year from 35,000 in 2001 to 47,500 in 2006, including about 20,000 school kids. This year, over 50,000 are expected.

The budget, more than $800,000 annually, has been balanced over the last three years through a concerted effort to develop markets and improve the offerings of the Marsh to generate enough revenue to cover costs. The Marsh is now successfully reaching total self-sustainability even as competition for funding is ever increasing.

The largest share of revenue (44%) comes from admissions and programs. Next come donations, including memberships, at 18%. Grants are just 16%, followed by events (9%), the store (9%) and bingo (4%).

What Is Needed Now?
The Centre needs your support and asks for a financial commitment to nurture this unique and irreplaceable area resource. Your support will help to develop and enhance the facility and exhibits, improve the educational programs, and protect and interpret the unique wildlife habitat. Recently Karin Hargreaves-Massar joined the staff to do some long-needed development work.

Donations of any size are appreciated, of course, and can be made directly to the Friends of the Wye Marsh. Tax receipts are issued.

Another way to show your support and understanding of the importance of the Centre is to become a Member. This offers such benefits as:
• Unlimited year-round day admission to the Wye Marsh trails and exhibits
• 10% discount in the Wye Marsh Gift Shop
• Newsletter, “Marsh Winds”
• Complimentary access to cross-country ski and snowshoe trails (weather permitting)
• Complimentary snowshoes (weather permitting)
• Special member rates for Children’s PD Day Programs, Day Camps, Parent & Tot and Evening Nature Programs 
• One voting privilege at Friends of Wye Marsh Annual General Meeting

A family membership can cover up to six names, including two adults and dependent children (4-17 years) living in the same household. This seems to us to be the bargain of the century, at only $100 (plus GST)!
For further information on donations or to become a member call the Wye Marsh at (705) 526-7809, or visit their website: www.wyemarsh.com. While you are there, you can download and print its Membership Form.