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“I am simply a housewife and a grandmother. »
Margot Heyerhoff is humble. Too humble.
This grandmother has achieved the feat of convincing wealthy landowners to sell, or outright donate, their vast land to an ecological conservation trust, thus curbing the momentum of real estate developers who have their eye on a corner of paradise.
So far, an area of 1,200 acres (nearly 485 hectares) has been protected, representing 900 football fields. And the Massawippi Foundation, of which she is president – as well as the trust of the same name – does not intend to stop there.
“If I had known how much work it was, I’m not sure I would have gotten into it,” she says before bursting out laughing.
“It is a very hard job, in the long term,” she adds more seriously.
The 69-year-old grandmother greets us in the barn-turned-artist’s studio behind her house. From her farm located a handful of miles from the town of North Hatley, in the Eastern Townships, there is a magnificent view of the Lake Massawippi valley.
On one wall of the workshop, the great lady with immaculate white hair pinned a humorous postcard in which we can see a woman exclaiming with a smile: “Remind me not to be a volunteer anymore. »
It is that certain negotiations with the owners or sometimes their heirs have dragged on for months, even years.
METERme Heyerhoff pulls out a large laminated map of private properties bordering the lake. Each red area represents land that is now protected.
First it was this woman from New York -who is now 100 years old- who offered a small lot of two and a half hectares located very close to the lake. Later, three neighbors of the American granted easements to protect more than 220 additional acres. The move was launched.
“The owner of this one was a real estate developer,” he says, pointing to 57 acres of land with access to the lake. “It was difficult to convince. He wasn’t going to give us a present,” she said, a smile still in his voice.
This developer had decided that he was too old to subdivide the land, but was in a hurry to sell it. “Find $1.2 million in six months, no mortgage, and it’s yours,” she told Ms.me Heyerhoff.
It was a race against time to collect the sum. “I called a lot of friends,” she recalls, adding that other “cherished” allies and volunteers have been working alongside her since the project’s inception.
“I would never have succeeded in this alone,” she insists (humble, she told herself).
Grandma is tenacious and persuasive. To a landlord who wanted to sell a property, including a house, a lakeside boathouse and a huge wooded lot, to the highest bidder, she suggested making three sales instead of one.
“It was a win-win,” she says. One bought the house, another the shed and the Trust kept part of the land to preserve it. In the end, the seller probably made as much or more money. »
On the acquired forest land near Saint-Catherine-de-Hatley, hiking trails (more than 8 km so far) have been developed. Another trail (2.5 km) was made in a protected park at North Hatley. A third will be built at Stanstead-Est in Burrough Falls.
The Foundation has hired a trail designer of Cree origin. “He is a genius! exclaims mme Heyerhoff creates sustainable trails with as little disturbance to flora and fauna as possible. »
During the pandemic, these trails have been busy. “Our trails have been beneficial to the mental health and physical health of the population,” she observes.
Initially, the municipalities, five around the lake, viewed the Fiducie project with skepticism, he says, as it would deprive them of potential property taxes.
But in 11 years, mentalities have evolved, note Mme Heyerhoff.
Townships realized that this was not a loss, but a gift to their population and that it added to the Townships’ cache.
A public beach developed in 2020 by the Foundation is now accessible by canoe or on foot. This project was of paramount importance since public access to the lake is very rare in the area, he explains.
“We protect what we love”
So, how did this “housewife” –and painter, let’s underline it even if it bothers her– came to knock on the doors of rich landowners and other developers to convince them to protect nature?
“We protect what we love,” he replies, quoting oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
METERme Heyerhoff was born in Montreal and grew up in Toronto. When he was 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. Later, he studied at Bishop University, where he would later return to work. “For me, it is the most beautiful place in the world. »
In 2000, she and her husband lived in Toronto with their two children. She is visiting the region when she sees this beautiful organic farm in a row of fields in the Canton of 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 she 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 motivated by a sense of urgency. “Many of the owners are elderly people. You have to convince them before they die because later it is often too late; we lose ground. It is sold by the heirs to the highest bidder. »
The lands on the western side of the lake have a high ecological value. The Foundation has also partnered with researchers from the Université de Sherbrooke, as well as being a member of the Corridor appalachien organization, to conduct research on the fauna and flora there.
Several species at risk in Canada have already been listed, including birds, the eastern piou, and certain stream salamanders (northern dusky and purple).
Beginning in the fall, the Foundation will offer eight area elementary schools three annual trail tours to allow youth to connect with nature. “Children will see the forest in three different seasons,” he marvels.
Do people from the surrounding communities have to thank you when they walk past you? we ask amme Heyerhoff. “They’re changing the sidewalks,” she said, laughing again. They know I’m going to ask for donations. »
One of his grandchildren, a 5-year-old boy with the same piercing blue eyes, was visiting his grandmother when he passed by. Press.
Several times during the interview, she gives him fond looks as he draws on the ground with chalk. It is a little – a lot – for his generation and the following ones that he dedicates all his time to this cause.
“I feel the climatic emergency”, says the grandmother. I can’t save the world, but I can act in my environment expecting others to act in theirs. »
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