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The legacy of King’s Koffler Scientific Reserve

November 15, 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Skid Crease

 

The beginning of his obituary says it all: “KOFFLER, Murray Bernard On Sunday, November 5, 2017 passed on at his home. Murray Koffler – A man who lived his vision to leave this world in a better place than when he entered it. A man who loved and was loved by his family, his friends and all those he touched globally regardless of race, religion, or status.”
One of those better places is at the Koffler Scientific Reserve right here in King. Most of us who love living or walking or just visiting in King know what a jewel it is, like a breathing, purifying oasis above the city of Toronto. And most of us want to protect it from the surging growth spreading north.
It was to that end originally that Murray and Marvelle Koffler decided to protect their Jokers Hill equestrian centre from development. The Kofflers first bought Jokers Hill in King in 1969, using it as their country home and the site of a variety of equestrian and charitable events.
The original patchwork of small 1880s farms were consolidated in a purchase made by Major General Clarence Mann in the 1950s. He and his wife, Billie McLaughlin, developed their new estate as a horse farm, putting in a race track, horse barns and opening up pastures.
Today those barns are being remodeled as research pods for University of Toronto students and Professors. When I was there on the very cold morning of Nov. 10, workers were just installing a new set of modern energy efficient windows on the old stables, much to the joy of the research staff. Beyond the building renovations, the race track and pasture lands have been turned into ecological science research sites to study the effects of accelerating climate change on evolving ecosystems.
As well as the Koffler Scientific Reserve that takes up most of the 350 hectares on the Oak Ridges Moraine, there are 50 hectares on the eastern portion off Bathurst Street that have a variety of public hiking trails. The main Reserve, however, is closed to the public for very good reason. It contains one of the largest stand of old-growth maple beech forests in Ontario, and an equally sized portion of second-growth forest that now serve as living scientific laboratories for the University of Toronto. Sacred spaces.
I had the privilege of touring the property with KSR director Professor Arthur Weis and Steph Schneider, the property manager who jokingly refers to himself as the onsite “gentleman scientist.”
Professor Weis took over from founding Director, Professor Ann Zimmerman in 2007, when he left the sun-drenched University of California and his role as Professor of Evolutionary Biology. Under his guidance, the former “racing barn” was turned into a state-of-the-art Laboratory for Biodiversity and Global Change Biology. The morning we watched the windows going in on the former stables to block out the -20ºC winds, I wondered if he was doing some California dreaming. But not at all.
Weis showed me his current project, in layman’s terms what I will call a thermal acceleration experiment in the natural environment. Picture two identical growing plots side by side, with exactly the same species of plants growing in exactly the same pattern. While one plot is subject to the regular vagaries of weather; the other plat has infrared heaters that come on via a computing sensing system to adjust the temperature over their plots by exactly +2ºC. This gives Weis an experimental, controlled window on the effects of accelerating climate change on plant growth and the variety of predators they attract.
Similarly, on the old pasture lands, the research team has set up cages of plants in fenced protected pods to study the growth patterns of different species as they respond to climate change variations. “We couldn’t do any of this on campus in Toronto,” said Weis. The inference being that without Koffler’s donation, this kind of research could not have taken place.
So unique is this site, that every year 100 to 150 professors, post-doctoral scholars, and students at both the graduate and undergraduate level, trek to the reserve to study the ecology and evolution of species ranging from slugs, to prairie grasses, to hummingbirds.
Not to be outdone, Steph Schneider was equally enthusiastic about the 36 identical mini-ponds that had been dug adjacent to a main pond. Here they study the variants in aquatic life and vegetation as they respond to changes in their ecosystem. Remembering the enthusiasm of my students for pond studies, it was refreshing to see this same sense of wonder in two adults marveling at the complexities of the greatest show on Earth – the evolution of natural systems in response to accelerating climate change.
Weis is not only completely immersed in the site and its potential, he feels deeply honoured to be carrying on the vision of Murray Koffler. He confided to me that when Murray and his wife Marvelle made the $18 million land gift to the University of Toronto in 1995, it was totally spontaneous. Originally, he had offered it to the Province of Ontario as a Provincial Park, but funding was tight and the Province was unable to provide the infrastructure to protect and conserve the area. During an event at Jokers Hill one day, the U of T chancellor at the time suggested Koffler could always give the lands to the University. “Done,” replied the philanthropist, and the most valuable land gift ever given to a Canadian university was completed over a handshake.
Murray Koffler will be remembered for many things. Most of us knew him as the CEO of Shoppers Drug Mart, and an Order of Canada recipient. Many of us were aware of his philanthropy through innovations like the U of T’s Koffler Institute of Pharmacy and the Koffler Student Centre, the Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre and the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto. Fewer still knew of his generosity towards the Toronto Outdoor Art Show and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.
But for me, as an environmental educator and science journalist, his greatest legacy will be the gift of Jokers Hill. The mission of the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill is very clear:
“Toward a sustainable future through research and education on the environment, in the environment.”
Yes, Mr. Koffler, I believe that you have indeed left this world in a better place than when he entered it. Your passion, humility and philanthropy are an inspiration to your family, friends and community. And, in the current darkness of deniers. the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill will be a beacon of scientific literacy for generations to come.

 

         

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