MapleCross: Investing in Canada’s Natural Heritage

27 Jan 2021
Thanks to the inspiring investment of an exciting new conservation partner, the Nature Trust was able to protect, forever, the ecological gem called Spectacle Island. Isobel Ralston and Jan Oudenes, founders of the Ontario-based MapleCross fund, generously donated $75,000 to acquire the island, part of a group of south shore islands recognized as globally significant for birds and bird conservation. The investment by the Ontario-based MapleCross fund brings a new source of funding for urgent land conservation efforts in Nova Scotia. While Jan and Isobel have invested significantly in numerous land trust projects all across Canada in the last three years, Spectacle Island is their first project in Nova Scotia.

“Dr. Jan Oudenes and Dr. Isobel Ralston established the MapleCross fund upon exiting their respective business careers in 2017. They have had the opportunity to travel widely, together developing an understanding and respect of the Canadian wilderness. From hiking the Rocky Mountains and canoeing in Ontario and on the South Nahanni River (Northwest Territories) to quietly appreciating the forest on their own property, Isobel and Jan have become increasingly aware not only of nature’s beauty and splendour, but also its fragility. They created MapleCross with the intention to invest in and protect ecologically sensitive land, preserving natural features and biological diversity for generations to come.” (from the MapleCross website)

Canada and The Netherlands have a special relationship dating back to WW II, and this was one of the reasons that Jan Oudenes made the journey across the Atlantic in the 1970s. He met Isobel Ralston, who grew up in Ontario, at the University of Alberta, where they both pursued PhD’s in chemistry. Both had a deep-seated love of nature and took every opportunity together to explore the fantastic outdoor opportunities – canoeing, hiking, cycling in the Rockies, backpacking, and more – that Canada had to offer. When they sold their successful pharmaceutical chemical company three years ago, they wanted to give something back to Canada.

Dr. Jan Oudenes and Dr. Isobel Ralston of the MapleCross Fund, standing in the Barrow Bay Cliffs Nature Reserve in Ontario, protected thanks to MapleCross funding.

Although they had many good options for meaningful investment, they knew that they needed to focus in order to make a real impact. In their own province of Ontario, they watched with growing concern as development absorbs ecologically sensitive land at an alarming rate. “Once you develop it, you can’t go back,” noted Isobel. They recognized the ongoing funding challenges faced by environmental charities and decided to take on land conservation as their investment focus for their newly founded MapleCross fund.

The couple began by funding land trust conservation work in Ontario, but they aspire to invest in projects across Canada. They want to inspire Canadians in every province to truly appreciate and respect what they have, and to highlight the breadth and scope that Canada’s nature has to offer. Their current projects protect coastlines and grasslands, old hardwood forests and wetlands, islands and inland reserves. They provide diverse habitat and corridors for a huge range of wildlife from coast to coast.

Both Jan and Isobel have visited Nova Scotia, remarking on the power of the Bay of the Fundy and the wonderful opportunities for observing whales and other wildlife. They also enjoyed experiencing the French and Acadian influences throughout the province. The raw ocean coastline was also striking.

The opportunity to protect Spectacle Island presented them with their first potential project in Nova Scotia. The Tusket Island group as a whole was not only historically interesting (they were charmed by the name “Spectacle” as well as the quirky history of Outer Baldonia) but also clearly an extremely important region for habitat and species conservation

Spectacle island aerial view.

From coastal barrens, bogs and cobble beaches to salt marshes and lagoons, the 60 acre Spectacle Island supports diverse habitats that provide much-needed sanctuary for breeding and nesting birds, and for birds resting and feeding along the Atlantic Flyway migration route. A diversity of shorebirds, from plovers and sandpipers to whimbrels, willets and endangered Red Knots, use the island’s wetlands to refuel and replenish during both spring and fall migrations, sometimes in great numbers. A range of other migrating birds also use Spectacle and surrounding islands as the critical last stop before their long migration south and the first landfall upon their return. The island hosts nesting birds as well, from terns, gulls and petrels to a diversity of songbirds, including Barn and Bank Swallows, both listed on Canada’s endangered species list. Winter visitors include other species of conservation concern such as Harlequin Ducks, American Black Ducks and Eiders. Spectacle Island adds to a growing legacy of over 1000 acres of bird habitat secured by the Nature Trust in the Tusket Islands and surrounding area, including the adjacent Peases Island, the Bald Islands, Seal and Bon Portage Islands.

One of Jan and Isobel’s primary objectives is to inspire all Canadians to answer the call to protect their country’s natural environment. “We are happy to donate, but the effect of that on its own is limited. Opportunities for additional leveraging not only give us more money to preserve land and biodiversity but they also help raise awareness about protecting Canada’s natural heritage,” says Jan. They see that awareness as being equally important as the money itself. “We can’t do it alone,” Isobel added. “And to address the bigger issues, like climate change, we each have to start in our own backyard.”

To help each of their projects make a bigger impact, they work to ensure that their donation also strategically leverages both local investment by the community and public sector funds. “The project has to be important to people at the local level and government too, so that our investment is just the beginning of the project,” Isobel noted. Where Jan and Isobel see local people, governments and other partners stepping up for nature, they will invest more.

Jan and Isobel’s $75,000 investment in Spectacle Island leveraged more than $100,000 in additional funds needed to complete the project. Funders include the Nova Scotia Crown Share Land Legacy Trust, the Canada Nature Fund, and a stewardship endowment by a private donor who was inspired by Maple Cross’s exciting initiative and their goal of increasing the capacity and impact of the sector by motivating others to step up for nature conservation too.

Jan and Isobel appreciate the well-established work of land trusts like the Nova Scotia Nature Trust and are confident that their investment is in good hands. “We don’t see our donation as charitable,” says Jan. “We expect to see dividends, to see long-term appreciation. Nature gives something back to society, in perpetuity if we preserve it and manage the risks properly.” And unlike financial investments, they like that you can actually touch and feel and walk on the land acquired by their contribution.

Spectacle Island also supports Maple Cross’s goal of inspiring broad collaboration beyond financial investment. The Nature Trust’s work on the island falls under the umbrella of its leadership in a broader island conservation and stewardship initiative, co-led by Nova Scotia Environment and the Canadian Wildlife Service and undertaken in collaboration with a diversity of partners including Indigenous and community organizations, researchers, and academics. The collaborative project will provide a model for island conservation and stewardship, island conservation planning and prioritization tools, and island conservation guidelines that can be used for island stewardship across the province and throughout Atlantic Canada.

Jan and Isobel’s generous donation is part of the Nature Trust’s Twice the Wild campaign, an ambitious conservation drive aiming to double the Nature Trust’s protected space for nature by 2023.

Their investment in Nova Scotia is timely, with significant growth in awareness and appreciation for nature that the pandemic has engendered. Like everyone affected by social restrictions, Isobel and Jan feel fortunate to have access to greenspace, and see this time as an opportunity to garner more support from everyone feeling a similar gratitude for access to nature. “We hope to inspire other Canadians to appreciate the irreplaceable nature we have in our own backyards, and to join us in protecting this legacy,” says Jan.

We encourage Nova Scotians to join in the long-term preservation and stewardship of Spectacle Islands and its birds, and to show that Nova Scotians care about protecting nature in our own backyards. You can be part of this project by donating to the Twice the Wild campaign. Every dollar donated generates four additional dollars to save nature across Nova Scotia.

As Isobel wisely noted, “If we don’t take action for nature in our own backyards, who will?”

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