If conservation education takes place in a forest, does anybody hear it? They do when it happens at the Heartland Forest Nature Experience, simply one of Niagara’s best examples of what can happen when caring individuals and united communities choose natural habitat over industrial development.
Heartland Forest operates at the intersection of experiential education and conservation ethic – in other words, it teaches all people the importance of connecting with nature by inspiring them to experience it firsthand. Located on 38 hectares (93 acres) of provincially significant wetlands west of Niagara Falls (minutes from Niagara Square), Heartland Forest is an environmental oasis for nature lovers – developed specifically with accessibility as a core component of its mission. When founder Dan Bowman purchased the land in 1999, he did so with a vision to create a nature experience that offered barrier-free access to people of all ages and with all levels of physical ability.
“It started off as a woodlot,” recalls Executive Director Elisabeth Graham. “Dan started forging some trails, then started building a tree-house, and then came the fishing pond. The first ten years were little baby steps, every year there was a new project.”
Those baby steps were taken with a clear direction in mind according to Graham. “Our mandate is built around education and preservation, but we have a passion for making nature accessible to all.” With that vision guiding the forest’s strategic development, the most significant step came in 2013 with the opening of the Heartland Forest Nature Centre, built with the help of a grant from the Harper government’s Enabling Accessibility Fund.
“Out of 355 applications made across Canada, only five were selected and Heartland Forest was one of them,” Graham says proudly. “That helped take us from being a seasonal facility to being year round. It also enabled us to expand our work experience program for adults with intellectual disabilities.”
Educational programming is a critical component of the activity now being conducted throughout the year at Heartland Forest, giving the facility a rare balance of “nature” and “nurture” in its efforts to achieve its lofty objectives.
“Our programming is unique to Niagara Region,” explains Graham. “And it’s based on three pillars: environmental leadership, ecological literacy – the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible – and community action.” It’s all part of the Heartland Forest’s attempts to advance “connection to nature” as a key takeaway for visitors to the forest, driving the principle that personal emotional connection is at the very core of enduring stewardship of our natural world.
However, before you start thinking the facility has turned a great patch of Carolinian forest into nothing more than an eco-classroom, then you can’t see the forest through the trees! At the “heart” of the Heartland Forest is a natural playground, full of winding tree-lined trails, a stocked fishing pond, picnic shelters, compelling info-graphics, a butterfly garden, observation and rest stations, animal carvings, turtle ponds, Canada’s first barrier-free mini-putt and a giant tree-house offering up a panoramic view of the forest. Simply put, it’s the perfect Niagara destination for fun family outings where, if you’re not careful, you might just learn something.
Dropping into the Heartland Forest at the height of the summer season is also a great way to see indigenous wildlife in its natural habitat. White tail deer, coyote, fox and mink have all been spotted in the forest, along with a variety of snakes, snapping and painted turtles, bullfrogs and American toads and rare blue-spotted or red-acked salamander. It’s a collection of species you definitely won’t find at Niagara Falls’ more well-known but less animal-friendly theme park. Best of all, admission to Heartland Forest is free as a result of the educational and facility rental programs that subsidize the park’s operation according to Graham.
“Go to our web site and you can book a birthday party, and you’ll see that by doing so you’re supporting our programs. By booking a facility rental, you’re supporting what we do here. We also have options for donations. By doing that you’re making nature available and accessible to all as well as our programming.”
By David DeRocco
Trails Open Daily 8 a.m. to Dusk
Nature Centre Open Mon. - Fri. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
and on weekends for private bookings and birthday parties
Heartland Forest Nature Experience
8215 Heartland Forest Road,