Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inspiration: 3 Generations of Stewardship

Good land stewardship runs deep in the Dutton family- and that of his wife, Barbara Dutton (née Longhurst). Her family was among the first settlers in the Windermere area, circa 1865, where they established a farm. A drive through the Windermere area tells stories of long established farmed meadowlands mixed in with the typical Muskoka lakes, pines, and granite.

The Longhurst family continues to farm in the Windermere area, but the Duttons took a different approach to land stewardship. “Each generation has their own part to play in the stewardship of our land. But the underlying set of values stays the same and is transferred from one generation on to the next” says John Dutton.

Ready to retire, the Duttons moved to Barbara’s grandmothers’ house near Windermere that was built in 1932. They eventually ran a Bed & Breakfast for eleven years. For their part, they envisioned continuing with Barbara’s family’s vision to steward the land. While not farmers, the values that were passed on through her family gave them a keen interest in private land stewardship.

The Duttons first became involved in the Stewardship Program in 1994. “It was important to us to be participants in the Muskoka Stewardship Program so we could preserve our property for our children. Handing the property down through each generation establishes a sense of inherent value in our family” says John Dutton.

Running the Bed & Breakfast allowed guests to experience the diverse habitat types, flora and fauna found on the Dutton’s 31 acre parcel of land. It also motivated the Duttons to focus on the stewardship of their land to enhance and preserve the natural systems that exist there.

During the first visit from the Muskoka Stewardship Program in 1994, the Duttons identified several initiatives that were important to them in their stewardship plan. These included maintaining existing and creating new trails, trail interpretive signs, learning more about the natural features of their property, continuing to extract small amounts of timber, and haying a small field.

Chris Near, a volunteer Master Steward, visited the Dutton property this summer as part of the new Stewardship Program: “When I met with the Duttons and walked their property I quickly became aware of their past efforts and future potential as stewards of their land.” Since the 1990s, John Dutton has expanded the trail system in order to gain better accessibility of the property and to appreciate the birds, wildlife, and unique land formations of the property.

One of the trails leads to a 3-acre portion of the property that is harvested for grain every couple of years. The trail system and this field are recognitions of Barbara’s family farming roots in the area and a way for John’s son and grandson to become involved in the stewardship of the property. Passing the land down to his son and grandson “creates a Trust for the family. They help with maintaining the property and learn about it and it becomes important to them” says John Dutton. Master Steward, Chris Near agrees and adds that “the Dutton’s land will also benefit from the knowledge that one generation is passing on to the next.”

The values of conservation and preservation are echoed by Jonathan (son) and Michael (grandson); the generations who are growing up on the land and envisioning their own ideas for stewardship. Michael is interested in maintaining the trail system and planting some trees. Although he admits it is hard to articulate, he values the strong family connection that he feels when visiting his grandparent’s property: “It is calming and peaceful to visit there, and I feel at home there.”

Jonathan notes that his parents have “passed on an active interest in the property. They have researched and learned so much about wildlife, for example, and shared that information and those stories with their kids.”

There is a long history of stewardship being passed on on this land. For John, Barbara and their family, the stewardship of their land has changed “how we value Muskoka as a whole. One leads into the other; the more we appreciate our 31 acres, the more we appreciate Muskoka” says John Dutton. For them, the family connection has given them a sense of how wonderful it is to have natural places that they can enjoy and steward.

Many landowners who participate in the Muskoka Stewardship program reflect on the importance of conservation on private land. John Dutton thinks “it is symbolic of our values. We want to preserve our property in a natural setting for generations to come.” Certainly, these are sentiments are representative of how many landowners in Muskoka feel about the region and their special piece of it.

The Dutton family has made a voluntary commitment to protect the rich and valuable natural heritage of their land by becoming part of the Muskoka Heritage Foundation’s Stewardship Program. The Foundation is helping them and many others to be better caretakers of the natural features that make Muskoka so special. If you and your family are interested in stewardship of your special piece of Muskoka, contact me.

The Muskoka Stewardship program is supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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