Jeff Green | Feb 11, 2015
Unlike a number of people being profiled for the Frontenac County 50 stories/150 years project, Gray Merriam does not have deep family roots in Frontenac County.
He first came to Kennebec Lake, with his wife Aileen, because they were starting to look for a place to move to after Gray had retired from Carleton University, and they happened to be headed to Toronto for a conference.
“There was a property on Kennebec Lake, and it was on the way so we stopped in,” he recalls.
It was early March and they could not take the road all the way in to the property for fear of not getting back out, so they left their car behind and walked in.
“I wanted to live within two canoe lengths of the water, which this property had since the house is right on the Salmon River, where it flows from Kennebec Lake. To tell the truth even before we got to the house I was sold on the property because of the snow fleas that made it look like the snow was moving in waves.”
Gray began his academic career as a population ecologist and was one of the people who developed landscape ecology as an academic pursuit.
“I began my career as a population ecologist and developed landscape ecology, with others, during my time at Carleton,” he said.
Landscape ecology was different at that time because it was based in Europe and was urban-based. It was connected to urban planning.
“When we started looking at it here it was more about large mosaics of various habitat types. It was farmland so you had little sugar bushes at the back of the farm, farm fence rows, crop field, hay fields, little creeks with some brush along them, and that entire mosaic was what the organisms were living with so we tried to study that entire mosaic. Previously ecologists tried to narrow things down to one little homogeneous bit, but it was clear to us that everything around it was the driving variable for how it all worked.”
This approach was used at first to determine, for example, how populations of bird species could survive in farmlands where there are only small pockets of suitable habitat.
“It turned out, that while small populations were vulnerable because they did not always breed, other populations would migrate to the habitat if it was not being used. So this tells you that the fate of a population in a single woodlot goes on and off like a little neon light but the fate of population in the region has a very high level of security. What that led to is a realisation that the organisms located between different patches of habitat are very important for the species to be able to migrate from one patch to another. It's the nature of the movements between patches of habitat that determine the success rate. So we did a lot of work on farm fence rows as a connectivity."
This kind of academic pursuit brought Merriam into contact with ecologists and other academics from across North America and elsewhere. When he retired he took on the goal of seeing if the principles of landscape ecology could be applied in his new community.
“The first thing was to bring the idea of ecological processes in lakes to try to engage the folks on the lakes about water quality sampling, shoreline surveys, and that led eventually to the lake planning that has become popular everywhere. Lake plans are based on the ideas of landscape ecology, especially when they extend to looking at watersheds as a whole,” he said.
One thing that Merriam did was to start writing articles for the Frontenac News, and writing books. He also founded the Friends of the Salmon River, and became instrumental in the work of the Frontenac Stewardship Council, which is now the Frontenac Stewardship Foundation. When Frontenac County began to set out an Official Plan, he began pushing for a Stewardship Plan for Frontenac County, a goal that he is still pursuing.
“The Friends of the Salmon came about when I met some neighbours downriver and we started talking about the health of the river and how we could monitor it. So I held a meeting at my house and a number of people came and they became the Friends of the Salmon.”
He expected he would find hot spots and complaints about the state of the river. “There weren't any, which makes it more difficult to organize people but there you have it.”
If there is a single issue that is most important about the future of the lakes along the Salmon River watersheds and all the watersheds in Frontenac County, he says it is phosphorous. Most of the phosphorous affecting lakes here is coming from faulty septic systems.
“We understand the role of septics, but the problem is the people, who resist being told what to do, and the potential cost is an issue as well. But by focussing on waterfront properties the people who own them tend to have more money available. The properties on the hillsides don't have the same problem because the runoff from the septics is taken up by vegetation, trees, etc.” he said.
On all the groups he has been involved with he sometimes comes into conflict over what he calls his “insistence that projects that get done make ecological sense.”
Another thing that he has pushed over the years is the interest of the north end of the county over what he sees as a bias towards the south.
“When I first was introduced to the Stewardship Council it was known as the South Frontenac Stewardship Council and it did not consider that it would ever extend north of Highway 7. We had to convince them there was life up here,” he said.
One of the things that he has been able to focus people's attention on is the two different geological regions in Frontenac County, the Limestone substrate in the South and the Canadian Shield landscape to the north.
These issues will be discussed in the extended version of this article, which will be published on February 26, in the 50 articles / 150 years supplement that will be a monthly feature of the Frontenac News for the rest of the year.