Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Last night at the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists Spring Gathering, Howard Clifford was presented with an MVFN Champion for Nature Award. The presentation was made by friend and fellow-MMLT board member Mary Vandenhoff.

“Howard is a founding member of the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust (MMLT) and has been for the last five years the President, leading that organization to be one of the acknowledged innovators in the Land Trust movement in Ontario. A friendly and thoughtful man, he is highly respected for his deep understanding of the importance of Nature and his passion for sharing his knowledge of it.  The head of one of the largest of the Ontario Land Trusts advised that we “wrap him in bubble wrap” – and MMLT members surely wish they could.  You could say that like John Muir before him, he is a worthy Voice of Nature.”

Cliff, Howard, Mary

l-r: Cliff Bennett, Howard Clifford, Mary Vandenhoff. Photo by Pauline Donaldson


Nature has no greater champion than Howard, long time member of MVFN.

Howard is a founding member of the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust and has been for the last five years the President, leading that organization to be one of the acknowledged innovators in the Land Trust movement in Ontario. A friendly and thoughtful man, he is highly respected for his deep understanding of the importance of Nature and his passion for sharing his knowledge of it.  The head of one of the largest of the Ontario Land Trusts advised that MMLT  “wrap him in bubble wrap” – and MMLT members surely wish they could.  You could say that like John Muir before him, he is a worthy Voice of Nature.

Howard and his wife Jean and family own cliffLAND, a 1250 acre special  wilderness tract of land in North Lavant.  This property was the first property formally put under a conservation easement with the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust, in order to ensure that it remains a wilderness sanctuary in perpetuity.  This they have done not only from a personal commitment to and love of nature, but for the benefit of the community, now and in the future.  The Clifford’s see wilderness areas in our region as an integral part of a healthy community. In that light, they have generously and strategically ensured that this tract will be accessible to future generations.

cliffLAND is home to Blueberry Mountain, which has been identified as one the Seven Wonders of Lanark County.  In the past two years, Howard has annually welcomed and engaged (often accompanied personally) over 1000 local, national and international visitors to the top of the mountain, sharing his love of nature and people and making their visits memorable and educational.  It is becoming a popular tourist attraction, and an important natural asset in the county.

Howard works to introduce to the wilds special groups for whom wilderness has restorative and health benefits.  He has a particular interest in youth and has hosted, on repeated occasions, groups from the local schools and youth centres.  He established the Blueberry Mountain Under 6 and Under 12 clubs to recognize with certificates (and sometimes even cakes) those who have walked to the top of Blueberry Mountain.  He has a special knack of making children marvel at and appreciate the natural world around them, and they (over 200) are delighted to be members of these clubs. Special recognition is also provided to those at the other end of the age spectrum.  His Over 80 Club now numbers 17, demonstrating that in later years, one can still enjoy the walk and absorb the quiet pleasure of sitting on top of the world in Lanark Highlands.

Howard shares his knowledge and affection of nature through inventive theatrical means.  Young and old alike have experienced the world and lives of the great naturalists Grey Owl, Thoreau, or John Muir, as Howard, up on top of Blueberry Mountain emerges from the bush to do moving impersonations of these heroes whose passions Howard shares.  So impressive are these performances, he has been invited to perform them in several other locations around Ontario.

One example of forward thinking was Howard’s proposal to utilize new approaches and technologies to better understand our natural heritage.  Some scientists in the United States had begun to use audio recorders to capture, identify,  and archive natural soundscapes. Others have made recordings of the sounds of certain fauna (bats, whales, certain birds of special interest) in the course their research.  Learning about these practices, Howard immediately saw the potential to supplement traditional annual monitoring of conserved lands with sound recordings, helping to track changes in habitat health. There can be changes, not notable visually but clearly evident through the changes in sound, especially with the assistance of special software able to deconstruct the recordings made.

An important educational application of audio recorders and amplifiers is to provide the public with an opportunity to listen to the sounds of nature amplified through headphones.  Several “soundscaping” opportunities have amply demonstrated how this enhanced listening experience leads to increased attention to sound, whether the frogs, birds, or the wind in the trees (as binoculars enhance bird watching).  Howard’s curiosity and initiative has shown that another world surrounds us, waiting to be appreciated and understood.

Well aware of the scientific evidence now proving what we all feel intuitively, that exposure to wilderness and nature have a healing influence on people, this gentle man is working to  contribute to community health and well being through  nature appreciation. He has generously shared his appreciation of wilderness with groups of children, young people and adults who have visited Land Trust properties, and helped them to learn about and experience nature. Privately, he has provided reassurance to challenged young people and facilitated peaceful final days for the dying. Publicly, he encourages all to experience and take advantage of the powerful mental and spiritual healing benefits of nature, and he has been pursuing new initiatives, to see if partnerships with community health organizations might broaden the range of beneficiaries.

In all these ways, Howard Clifford is a true Champion of Nature.

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David White has contributed greatly to natural heritage conservation in Lanark County by creating and making accessible a flora for the County. David’s flora includes: descriptions and photographs of significant places for flora, photographs of special plants, and a list of all the plant species (aliens distinguished from native) found in the County including their degree of rarity, habitat type, and locations. Further, David keeps the plant species names on this list up-to-date with new published taxonomic literature—a huge task.  This natural heritage resource has been developed and is maintained entirely through volunteer time.  It is available online, at, to all interested in our flora.











Above l-r: Lobelia spicata (Pale Spike Lobelia), Cardamine concatenata (Cut-leaved Toothwort), Halenia deflexa (Spurred-gentian); photos from

David White 2014

Cathy Keddy presents the 2014 MVFN Champion for Nature Award to David White at the May 15 Spring Gathering in Almonte. Photo Pauline Donaldson

David’s flora has very practical nature conservation applications. One of the most important is in assessing the value of our natural areas and setting priorities for protection. By comparing a species list for a property to David’s species status information, we can determine the significance of the plant species found on the property.

Thus, thanks to MVFN’s 2014 Champion for Nature, David White, information about all plant species in Lanark County is available and can be used in developing plans for conservation of these species.

David White’s Plants of Lanark County website is at




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Al Potvin is known in the Mississippi Mills area for his contributions to nature and people’s enjoyment of nature. He established a walking trail on his property lined by many well-cared for trees. Al also invites people to bring their leaves to his property where he composts them, and provides the screened compost to the public in exchange for donations which he gives to the Almonte General Hospital. In photo below Joyce Clinton presents the award to Al.

Al Potvin MVFN Champion 2012 (818x1024)

For many years Al has also been the driving force for MVFN’s habitat creation program. In his workshop, Al and others cut and sand thousands of pieces from Al’s repurposed wood to be used by teams of MVFN volunteers to assemble, under Al’s expert guidance, MVFN Peterson style bluebird houses. Hundreds of these bluebird boxes have been created and thousands of dollars have been raised for Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists’ programs through their sale. In creating these bluebird boxes, said lecturer Dan Schneider the night of the award presentation, Al fills the ecological niche of a woodpecker in providing habitat for bluebirds and other cavity nesters.

These artificial bluebird nesting homes are now helping to re-establish these beautiful songbirds to our area. Many of the Peterson Bluebird boxes constructed and sold by MVFN have gone to property owners who have space to establish a bluebird trail.

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Mike McPhail is a quintessential organizer, natural public speaker and leader, and a man with a great passion and curiosity for our natural world. Born and raised in Almonte, a geologist by training, Mike served as both Chair of Environmental Issues and Vice President on MVFN’s board. For three years he led the club as President.

Mike McPhail

There are very many MVFN’s projects which, without a doubt, would not have taken place without Mike McPhail. Mike researched and organized the huge logistical and multi-team effort involved in MVFN’s first bioblitz held in September 2009 on the Bell property in Mississippi Mills. A great success, this bioblitz quickly become a model for other clubs. At Mark’s Lookout on Spring St. in Almonte, Mike organized a shoreline cleanup day and planting of native shoreline shrubs and plants. Mike had significant input into MVFN’s part in MVC’s Kintail Country Christmas and was the inspiration behind the Champion for Nature awards. He has donated time, enthusiasm and expertise (and sometimes his dissecting scope) for MVFN information booths at the Art of Being Green and many other events.

In 2007 Mike played a major role in the planning and running, the Weathering the Change Climate Change workshop held in Almonte, and acted as M/C throughout this 2-day long workshop. Another projects which is close to Mike’s heart and would not have happened without him is MVFN’s Habitat Creation program which has resulted in hundreds of blue-bird houses for our feathered friends as well as duck nesting platforms and other habitat projects still in the works.


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Elementary school teacher Neil Carleton is a founding member of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists. Neil is one of those rare individuals who combine passion with knowledge in teaching others about the natural world, and the need to protect it. He has influenced countless individuals in his role as a teacher in and outside of the classroom


Neil at MVFN’s Booth at the Art of Being Green Festival (photo Pauline Donaldson)

From the early days of the club to the present day Neil has been involved as a volunteer: chairing MVFN’s bylaws committee, taking part in the Ontario Rare Bird Survey, leading fossil hunting for youth and trips to the Museum of Nature in the 1990’s, staffing educational booths at Art of Being Green and local fairs, participating with his class in MVFN’s Frost Watch climate change awareness program (in2005). Neil’s volunteer environmental advocacies have included everything from lobbying for the creation of our local curb recycle program, to suggesting to the president of Ontario Nature that they consider adopting a more proactive stance on Climate Change, to raising awareness of the environmental impacts of mining. While he may prefer to be in the field he is not afraid to put pen to paper or sit on a committee for the right cause.

Often first to report an interesting nature sighting, Neil shares his marvel at the natural world and his detailed observations inspire others to take a closer look and develop a deeper understanding of nature.

Neil wrote A Short Geological History of Lanark County and provided it to MVFN for use on our website. It is a journey back in geological time to discover the secrets to Lanark County’s astonishing biodiversity, so important to understand our underlying bedrock and its influence on what is above ground. Neil Carleton, along with Allan Donaldson, launched the Almonte Geoheritage Project in 2004. This led to the creation of Canada’s First Municipal Geopark, declared on April 9, 2008, located in Almonte, Ontario.


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