By Jessica Lovell
The fences are finally coming down at the former Kortright Waterfowl Park on Niska Road, but it will still be some time before the long-closed property is returned to public use.
“Even though we’re taking the fences down, that’s not an invitation for people to come onto the property,” said Dave Shultz, manager of communications for the Grand River Conservation Authority.
The conservation authority owns the 47-hectare property, but it had been leased to the Niska Wildlife Foundation and has been closed to the public since 2005. The lease has come to an end, and the conservation authority is taking first steps toward rehabilitation. However, the property will remain closed to the public while safety assessments are carried out and deficiencies are addressed. “We have to go in and see what the conditions are like today,” Shultz said. In the meantime, “No Trespassing” signs will be posted. But for Eileen Hammill, whose family once owned the property, the return of the land to the conservation authority is a step in the right direction.
“I really would like to see them do some planning, so the property could be utilized properly for public use,” she said.
Once, decades ago, the Kortright Waterfowl Park was open to the public 365 days a year. It had nature trails and observation areas and was home to 80 different species of birds.
By the time the park closed in 2005, its operation had been reduced to weekends and statutory holidays from March to October. Poor health of Niska Wildlife Foundation director Richard Ortlieb brought about an early closure that year, causing a stir in the local community.
At the time, he promised the park would re-open on schedule the following spring. It never did.
Ortlieb was originally hired in the 1970s to work for the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation, which was responsible for the park at the time. He still lives on the property with his wife, Jeanne Kannenberg.
When interviewed several years ago, Ortlieb and Kannenberg blamed incidents involving vandals breaking into the property and killing birds for the park’s permanent closure.
“What birds we had left, we put in covered pens,” said Kannenberg, explaining how the couple attempted to protect the birds from further harm.
“When we can no longer protect the birds, it’s not fair to keep them,” said Ortlieb, describing plans to find new homes for the few remaining birds.
Ortlieb has been with the park since its days as a research facility and a breeding facility that provided birds to restock other zoos and sanctuaries, to its days as a recreational park and zoo, to the eventual closure.
He and his wife will remain there until the end of this year, said Shultz, and the conservation authority is asking the public to respect their privacy and stay off the property.
Shultz could not say what use the house and other buildings that the couple occupies might have in the future for the conservation authority.
“We won’t have access to those buildings” until the end of the year, he said.
Any birds, of which there may be a few still left on the property, are the responsibility of the Niska Wildlife Foundation, said Shultz. There are also some deer that once belonged to the park, but the conservation authority has a permit from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to release these into the wild.
Ministry staff believe the deer have already been free for some time, leaving and returning to the property by jumping over damaged sections of fence, Shultz said.
Eventually, the conservation authority intends to develop a master plan for the long-term use of the property, with input from the community and from the City of Guelph.
“We know that there is a community interest in the property,” said Shultz.
One possibility for the property might be to turn it into “what we would call a passive property,” he said.
That type of property is a non-admission type property, requiring a lower level of maintenance, he explained.
“There have been discussions about a trail along the river,” he said, noting one possible use for the property.
Whatever the plan, “it’s not something that’s going to happen right away.”
Currently, the conservation authority has a list of things to deal with on the property, including boardwalks, bridges, a dam and trees damaged both by deer and by recent ice storms. A downed power line also needs to be repaired.
Hammill is hopeful that eventually the land will come back into use by the public.
“It’s been purchased by public money and I’d like to see it utilized for young people and the general public,” she said.
She believes there are some fields that would make ideal sites for sports fields if the conservation authority could work out an agreement with the city. She also spoke about the possibility of picnic areas and trails.
At one time, there were developers anxious to get their hands on some of the property, but efforts were made to ensure that it went to the conservation authority instead, Hammill said.
Now she hopes the organization will make good use of the land for the public good.
“I hope the GRCA does the right thing, because there was a real effort made to ensure that the GRCA got that property,” she said.