For 40 years, residents of Waterloo Region have gone birdwatching, hiking and cross-country skiing on 95 hectares of land in Wilmot Township, known as Schneider Woods. The expanse of rolling hills is named after its owners, the family behind the deli meats and hot dogs Ontarians know well from the grocery store. 

The land is located in the Laurel Creek headwaters, in an area designated an “environmentally sensitive landscape” because of the woodlands, wetlands and wildlife it contains. It is on top of the Waterloo Moraine, and home to bald eagles, turtles and a whole lot of insects. Kevin Thomason, the vice-chair of the Grand River Environmental Network and a neighbour of the Schneiders, said matriarch Jane Schneider has a simple reason for opening the land to the public. 

“People will never appreciate nature if they can’t experience it,” he said, quoting the 94-year-old.  

Thomason has been working with the family for 20 years to find a suitable organization to donate a portion of the land to, in order to make the informally public space officially accessible to everyone. About four years ago, the Schneiders finally found a suitable organization: the Rare Charitable Research Reserve, a land trust focused on conservation in Waterloo Region.

For the last year, the donation has been held up because Wilmot Township wanted the organization to build a 12-car parking lot on the property. Staff said they were concerned existing street parking makes Wilmot legally vulnerable since, after parking, visitors must cross a street that truck drivers and others sometimes use to bypass traffic on busier roads. But the family and Rare said a paved lot would degrade the environmentally sensitive landscape. 

Aerial view of Schneider Woods in Wilmot Township, Ont.
The 95-hectare property being donated is on top of the Waterloo Moraine. It contains hills left behind from glacial deposits, meadows, wetlands and mature forests and is home to bald eagles, turtles and a whole lot of insects. Photo: Phil Drennan

Given Jane’s age, time is of the essence. In a letter to neighbours and supporters sent out in January, her children wrote that when she does pass, “taxation will be triggered that would necessitate the sale of these lands and, therefore, the loss of access to all.” The land is “right on the doorstep of the city,” Thomason said, making it very attractive to developers. 

After the family’s open letter, members of Wilmot council received numerous calls and emails from residents supporting the donation. A township staff report on Feb. 28 recommended council allow the land to be donated without the addition of the parking lot, but with the institution of traffic-calming measures including restricted parking on some surrounding roads in the winter, when the site is used most. 

At a meeting March 4, council agreed to both the zoning changes that would allow the donation to proceed, and the traffic-calming measures. The Schneider family told The Narwhal the process has left them burnt out and too tired for interviews, but at that meeting, Jane’s daughter Peggy Schneider read a letter to council on behalf of her sister Anne Fontana, who has been more involved in the donation process. 

“The proposed solution is a good start,” the letter said. “But I encourage the township to listen to neighbours and to continue the work of managing this area. It is not this donation that’s driving more cars and people to use Wilmot Line and surrounding roads, but the increased population in Waterloo Region.” 

Schneider Woods in Wilmot Township, Ont.
Wilmot Township wanted a parking lot built before approving the donation because of safety issues presented by street parking. Environmentalists said the salt used to de-ice a parking lot could affect wildlife and drinking water. Photo: Phil Drennan

Land donation approved without sacrificing biodiversity — but sticking points remain

The areas experiencing the most population growth in Canada are also some of the most biodiverse, Tom Woodcock, Rare’s planning ecologist, said. That includes around Waterloo Region, where parts of the nearby Nith River, which empties into the Grand River, have been recognized as a key biodiversity area.

The Schneiders, who sold their meat company decades ago, plan to donate the land under the federal Ecological Gifts Program, which offers tax benefits to landowners who donate environmentally sensitive land to a qualified recipient to ensure “biodiversity and environmental heritage are conserved in perpetuity.”

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After acquiring land through purchases or donations, Rare works with local communities to ensure that land is conserved and maintained, its trails and wildlife are monitored — and to “maximize [its] ecological utility,” Woodcock said. One key goal is to ensure conservation areas aren’t unnecessarily fragmented, since undisturbed green space allows animals, water and plants to move easily. 

“The Schneider property is one of the largest areas of continuous intact habitat left in the region,” he said. Because the 95 hectares are “surrounded by at least three sides” with other properties with intact habitat, their designation as conservation land is especially important.

Deer in Schneider Woods in Wilmot Township, Ont.
Known as Schneider Woods, after the family that currently owns it, the land is being donated to the Rare Charitable Research Reserve, which plans to collect data on wildlife species and population numbers. Photos: Phil Drennan

The landscape itself is quite diverse, with hills left behind from glacial deposits, meadows, wetlands and mature forests, Woodcock said. Though there is a lot of wildlife to observe, there hasn’t been much data collected on species and population numbers, which Rare plans to address once it owns the land. 

One of the reasons the organization and the family were opposed to a parking lot was that the land is most popular in winter. That means a parking lot would need to be paved, rather than made of grass or gravel, and the salt used for de-icing would damage water quality.  

“The reason the wetlands in this area are so prolific and we have such untold amounts of frogs and amphibians is because the roads are all gravel and there is no salt in this area,” Thomason explained. 

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Drinking water could also be harmed by salt use. Waterloo Region is the largest municipality in Ontario that almost exclusively sources its drinking water from the ground. According to the region’s website, it collects 100 million litres of groundwater daily, with the rest coming from the Grand River. 

“We rely on groundwater,” said Samantha Lernout, president of Citizens for Safe Groundwater, a non-profit organization in Wilmot. “It’s extremely important to protect those areas where the groundwater recharges so that we have access to clean drinking water in a growing region.” 

A large portion of the Waterloo Moraine is in Wilmot, so Lernout sees the township as “the steward of the region’s drinking water.” 

In their letter, the Schneiders shared some of the history of the land and the donation process, before urging residents to show their support for their gift to the township’s council — which many did. 

A marsh in Schneider Woods in Wilmot Township, Ont.
One of Rare’s key goals is to ensure the conservation areas it cares for aren’t unnecessarily fragmented, since undisturbed green space allows animals, water and plants to move easily. Photo: Phil Drennan

At its March 4 meeting, the township council heard from eight citizens, including Thomason and Rare’s executive director, Stephanie Sobek-Swant. Thomason explained the traffic-calming measures were “too extreme” and “overly-punitive” and could make things more dangerous rather than safer. Both proposed other solutions, including fundraising to help cover the cost of improving the existing roadside parking, standardizing speed limits for all roads in the Laurel Creek Headwaters environmentally sensitive landscape and only restricting parking where current safety concerns exist. 

Still, when council voted to allow the donation it also approved township staff’s recommended measures, including winter parking restrictions, and some speed limit changes. Council did, however, agree to revisit the parking situation ahead of next year’s ski season. 

“It’s unfortunate that none of our suggestions last night were taken,” said Thomason after the meeting on March 4. “But these are things that we can continue to work on over the weeks and months and years ahead.”

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