The South March Highlands
Just 20 minutes from Parliament Hill, this is Ottawa's Great Forest: an old-growth paradise that is recreationally enjoyed and spiritually revered. It has untapped ecotourism potential, but threatened by urban sprawl. Spanning over a thousand hectares, this Canadian Shield ecosystem is more than a billion years old. Rich in wetlands and mature forest, it is home to more than 654 species, including 18 species that are at risk of becoming extinct.
This area contains hundreds of mammal, bird, and vegetation species. The fact that they’re all in one place within a major urban city is astounding. No other major city in the world has the biodiversity that this region has. For citizens and tourists alike, the South March Highlands offer an immersive glimpse into Canada's pre-colonial ecology. The forest attracts birders, nature lovers, scouts, biologists, archeologists, hikers, mountain bikers, skiers, photographers...and dreamers.
What makes this forest so special? It's biodiversity is exceptional. The South March Highlands area is rated as a provincially significant Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI) for both its Life Science value (895 hectares) and its wetlands (114 hectares). There are 679 known species including 160+ bird species, although there remains much to be discovered. Scientists believe there could be thousands of species in this wilderness. There are also two rare coldwater streams that run through the highlands, providing a life source to many animals that wouldn't normally survive in an urban environment.
The highlands have also been sacred ground for area Algonquins – forming Turtle Island at a time when Ottawa was submerged by the Champlain Sea thousands of years ago. At least three 10,000-year-old archaeological sites have recently been discovered here and are awaiting further study.
Being so close to the city's downtown core, the highlands understandably face growing pressure from groups wanting to develop the land. Many community, recreational, and cultural groups have been champions for protecting this fragile forest. On behalf of aboriginals everywhere, the late Grandfather William Commanda, recipient of the Order of Canada, was dedicated to protecting it. Just before his passing in 2011, he said the South March Highlands are a "national heritage site, one of significant Indigenous importance and as an Algonquin in the unceded, unconquered, and unsurrendered Ottawa River Watershed.”
Other community groups include the South March Coalition, which has put forth a stewardship plan for the area (www.southmarchhighlands.ca). To help protect ecological sensitive areas, a trail system is maintained by the Ottawa Mountain Biking Association. Numerous national groups have recognized South March's special ecology, including the David Suzuki Foundation, the Sierra Club of Canada, and CPAWS.
This great forest is important not only to Ottawa's residents and visitors, but to all Canadians. It's a rare old-growth environment that is home to many species on the brink of extinction. It's a living history lesson in pre-colonial ecology. It's a sacred place that holds cultural and archeological secrets. It's a place to explore, to breathe, and to appreciate Mother Earth – all this only 20 minutes from Parliament Hill!
As Ottawa's suburbs began to grow westward in the 1970s, then-Kanata City planners and provincial environmental officials recognized that the highlands deserved special protection. Engineers also recognized that South March's wetlands were very effective at managing watershed issues – the natural system protected the developed areas from flooding. This foresight in planning is the reason we still have the South March Highland today.