Today’s post comes from Jake Guggenheimer, former Discovery staffer at Neys Provincial Park.
Imagine that you are in a forest.
What do you hear?
The rustling of the trees with the wind. The birds sing to each other. The flow of a stream.
Do you see?
A flower that begins to bloom. A chipmunk running on the ground. The sun shining through scattered clouds.
If you imagined yourself in Neys Provincial Park, the animals and plants you imagined are some of the most interesting flora and fauna that exists.
This is because Neys is a protected natural area with a high level of ecological integrity.
What is ecological integrity?
Ecological integrity (EI) is a principle that Ontario Parks strives to uphold. This term refers to three main parts: structure, composition and function.
Structure It covers all living and non-living things: rocks, soil, plants, water, air and animals that are present on earth.
Composition It is the variety of living beings within the ecosystem, also known as biodiversity. Generally, the more species an area has, the higher the level of biodiversity.
Function Describes the natural processes that take place, such as water cycles or predator-prey cycles. For example, within the park, rivers change course, animals are protected from hunters, and forests grow into mature stands.
In essence, ecological integrity is how “natural” an area is!
A provincial park would have a higher level of ecological integrity than, say, a city center. But important work continues to be done to increase and protect the level of EI in provincial parks to ensure these habitats and the species that live there can thrive for generations to come.
Ecological integrity in Neys
Neys Provincial Park, located on the north shore of Lake Superior, borders the southern edge of the Boreal Forest. This geographical location gives Neys some very interesting qualities.
The boreal forest is the largest forest biome in the world, surrounding the northern hemisphere of Canada, the United States, Russia, and several northern European countries.
Some tree species found in the boreal forest include the towering white spruce (Picea glauca), slender black spruce (The Marian Shovel), and the fallen Jack Pine (Bankiana pine) that dot the landscape.
The boreal forest seen from the Kopa Cove trail in Neys
Forest fires serve an important natural function in the boreal forest. Many tree species depend on them for reproduction and help maintain forest health.
Jack Pines have cones that are sealed with a resin that only melts at temperatures of 50°C and above! Only then can the seeds be released into the ground and a new tree begin to grow.
All of these species and more can be found in Neys, so ask a park naturalist to help you identify them on your next visit!
Being so close to Lake Superior can keep things cool for our campers, but also provides an opportunity for many species that are normally found hundreds of miles north on the tundra!
From left to right: common butterfly, encrusted saxifrage and bird’s-eye primrose
These “Arctic-disjoint” species have the ability to grow here in the colder microclimates along the Lake Superior coast.
Keep an eye out for some of these species, including the common butterfly, encrusted saxifrage, and bird’s-eye primrose, as you hike The Point Trail or Under the Volcano Trail.
Challenges to ecological integrity
There are many challenges that parks face when addressing their ecological integrity.
The dune path
For some, it may be maintaining the population of an at-risk species. Some species can be very sensitive to disturbance and require a more natural habitat away from human activity.
Trails are one of the best parts of Ontario parks, but they need to be constantly managed. If a trail receives too many visitors, the soil can become compacted, which can damage tree roots, change water flow, or inhibit the ability of small animals to burrow.
You can do your part to prevent a trail from widening by being careful to walk single file where the trail narrows and always staying on designated trails.
Another challenge all parks face is trash.
Always remember to dispose of your trash properly; Your fire pit is not a trash can. If you can take a granola bar with you on a hike, you can easily take the wrapper with you.
Trash found on Neys’ Lookout Trail
If snacks are left for animals to eat, they can become accustomed to human food, reducing their dependence on their natural diets, upsetting the careful balance of the ecosystem and damaging their health.
Always store your food in your vehicle when you are not cooking or eating and do not leave food unattended at your campsite.
red pine plantation
At Neys, a challenge to our ecological integrity is also one of the most defining features of our park: a 72-hectare red pine plantation (Pinus resinosa).
During World War II, Neys was the site of a prisoner of war camp. After the war ended, the buildings were dismantled and the sandy site was left alone. In 1962, the Boy Scouts of Canada planted red pine trees to help stabilize the vulnerable dune ecosystem that had begun to erode due to strong winds from Lake Superior.
There are several effects that the pine trees have had in the park. Being a monoculture (a single species of tree) increases the risk of damage if a disease or insect outbreak occurs. It is important that forests have diversity!
red pine plantation
The pine rows also provide limited habitat for wildlife (there’s nowhere to hide!) and the falling needles are slowly acidifying the soil, making it difficult for other species to grow there.
Red pines are also not a native species to this region of Ontario and are generally found in forests further south. They do not tolerate the cold winters of the north coast well.
Restoring the Red Pine plantation to a more natural forest habitat and dune ecosystem is a long-term goal of Neys.
In 2019 steps were taken to remove some of the dead red pines in the camp and replant them with native species such as white birch (Betula papirifera) and white spruce (Picea glauca).
This process will be a multi-year effort, but important to strengthen the ecological integrity of Neys.
Understand your impact
The next time you are in a park, try to notice the different species of plants and animals you find.
A Canada Jay
Think about the natural processes taking place and their interactions with each other. Consider the impact you have on the environment as you explore.
By treating nature with care, you can be an ally in Ontario Parks’ efforts to preserve and enhance ecological integrity throughout our beautiful province.
Neys Provincial Park is located 3 ¼ hours from Thunder Bay and 30 minutes from Marathon.