How SOS Saved the Bois-des-Esprits Forest

This tree story was adapted by Denis DePape from Save Our Seine Environmental Inc.’s  20th Anniversary Booklet entitled “1990-2010: 20 Years of Saving the Seine River Greenway.” All photos by Denis DePape.

For Save Our Seine (SOS), there is likely no greater feather in the cap than the jewel that is the “forest of spirits”, the Bois-des-Esprits. No single issue in SOS’ history took more out of its board than the fight to save the nearly 120-acre city forest from development. What follows is a brief telling of a saga that consumed 10 years of effort.

In a 2001 conceptual study funded by Western Diversification, with participation of the City of Winnipeg, Ladco Homes and Save Our Seine, it was proposed that an interpretive center, walking trails and canoe launches be established in and around the Bois-des-Esprits,  110 acres forest adjacent to the Seine River and paralleling south St. Anne’s Road.  Most of this forest was Grade A habitat —virtually undisturbed, but with a maximum sensitivity to disturbance. It featured 24 mammal species, including its own deer population, 149 bird species, including great horned owls and pileated woodpeckers who resided year round, 25 fish species plus amphibians and reptiles, as well as 180+ different plants in 4 types of habitat: wetland, river bottom forest, up-land oak and aspen forest and tall grass prairie. It contained the largest representation of mature oak trees remaining in Winnipeg.

A purchase agreement for upland part of the forest dating back to 1989 indicated that Ladco Homes owned 64% of the land, and the Province another 38%. In the early 2000s housing lots were selling at a fever pitch, and Ladco was eager to cash in on its planned south St Vital neighbourhood, Royalwood. This included removing the forest and developing part of the lands in the Bois-des-Esprits.

The prospect of losing one of the last remaining sizable intact forest in the Seine River Greenway did not sit well with Save our Seine.  This led SOS to launch a major initiative to have all of the lands in Bois-des-Esprits protected for development. The cornerstone of this initiative was a campaign to raise funds to pay for the portion of the Bois-des-Esprits owned by Ladco and the Province, which they intended to develop.  Led by then president Bev Sawchuk, SOS aimed to purchase the land with a price tag pegged at $2.3 million. After several years of heavy lobbying of the City and Province and collecting private donations, they had succeeded in securing most of the required amount. The city chipped in $1 million and committed to match any donations up to $600,000. To purchase the land and protect the forest, SOS needed to raise over $700,000 by a deadline of December 31, 2002.

On Easter Sunday, in April 2002, bulldozers were seen in the forest, illegally clearing a huge swath through the trees. The developer claimed it was intended to allow surveyors access to the site of an intended future bridge. SOS was incensed that the site had not even received approval for development. Informed by the City that they did not have authorization, the bulldozers were momentarily halted.

Meanwhile, SOS succeeded in having the deadline to purchase the land extended to December 31, 2003. In 2003 SOS launched a postcard campaign, which included breathtaking pictures of the forest. Members of the community were encouraged to indicate their support for the preservation of the Bois Des-Esprit Forest by mailing the postcards to the premier. SOS still needed to raise over $600,000 to purchase the land.

Late in 2003 SOS received a lifeline. On December 30th, literally one day before the deadline on the purchase ran out, the province announced along with the City, they would ensure the protection of 66 acres with a commitment and another 14 acres would not be developed until 2005. This saw about 80% of the Bois-des-Esprits saved, a monumental victory! The remaining 14 acres were also saved through completion of the fund raising initiative, with the Province contributing the remaining amount needed. The last 14 acres were purchased and as a result, all of Bois-des-Esprits was saved, with the exception of a  strip of land needed to build the access road to Royalwood.

Now that SOS had preserved the land, it was time to go to work on a management plan. Under president Tammy Rutherford, SOS participated in a major planning study that was undertaken by the City of Winnipeg. The planning process studied the quality of land, sites suitable for trails, classification of ecosystems and cataloguing of the wildlife in the forest.

The management plan was completed in 2007 and led to construction of an upland trail network in 2008 and 2009. The new trails, funded by the City of Winnipeg, were intended to improve public access to this magical forest and reduce pressure on lowland trails located near the Seine River. Care was taken in locating and building the trail to minimize the number of trees removed and avoid damage to nearby standing trees. Nearly 2km of trail was completed in 2009, and further trails and interpretive signage were planned.

The Bois-des-Esprits lives up to its name thanks to the work of several talented carvers. The most popular attraction in the forest is easily “Woody” the 3 meter tall tree spirit. Carved by Les Gens de Bois Woodcarving Club out of an elm destined for removal due to Dutch Elm disease, the tree was stripped and prepared to remove all disease. In 2010 Woody appeared to be sprouting friends. With city approval, local Metis carver Murray Watson began to carve smaller tree spirits out of dead trees in the forest. At last count there were 11 of Watson’s carvings, including a large great gray owl. See how many you can find!

Save Our Seine’s efforts to save Bois-des-Esprits is proof that a group of citizens can have an incredible impact in protecting and preserving natural areas and other green spaces in our city, and provides inspiration for further boards of SOS and the community at large.

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