• Protecting Water and Farmland in Simcoe County

Local conservancy hopes to grow ‘massively’ under new leadership

In Development
Mar 5th, 2023
Conservancy has big plans with Dorthea Hangaard at helm; ‘The organization is in good hands,’ says former executive director
Photo: Dorthea Hangaard, executive director of the Couchiching Conservancy, is shown with former executive director Mark Bisset.

The Couchiching Conservancy held its annual general meeting Saturday at the Hawk Ridge Golf Club in Severn Township.

It was the first public event for Dorthea Hangaard as the new executive director of the conservancy. She has served the not-for-profit organization in various capacities since 2011 and took over the top job in January.

While Hangaard was taking environmental studies at the University of Waterloo and living on northern Vancouver Island, she was feeling “directionless.” After reading an article by Lester Brown in 1999 on how to prepare for the next century, Hangaard found her motivation.

“He said we need to protect as much as we possibly can so we can fortify ourselves and protect as much nature as possible to create resilience,” she remembered reading.

After trying a few careers and types of non-profit work, Hangaard ended up working for an ocean conservation organization in British Columbia before moving back home to Orillia.

“It’s very gratifying to be back here now to help protect land in this area,” she said. “My goal is to protect as much land as I possibly can.”

Hangaard is taking over for Mark Bisset, who stepped down as executive director after nearly 14 years.

“He is an exceptional leader,” Hangaard said. “His lack of ego and always putting the organization first made him exceptional.”

Bisset, who, with his wife, is a legacy donor to the organization, says the conservancy was more than just a job to him.

“I’ve come to a point where I’ve run out of gas,” he said. “The organization needs a leader who is putting in the time and has the energy to do that.”

He is going to stay on as a volunteer acquisition specialist, and says he is proud of what was accomplished during his time as executive director.

“The mission of this organization is critically important,” he said. “After all this time, I still get a kick out of going out on properties that we have protected and cared for, and I know they are going to be there for good.”

Under Hangaard’s leadership, Bisset hopes to see the organization grow “massively” and protect twice as much land as it secured during his tenure.

“Dorthea has been a big part of our success, and the organization is in good hands,” he said. “She is the mind behind our community science program. She developed it from the group up, and it has become an enormous asset for us.”

He says Hangaard’s understanding of the culture of the organization is what makes her the ideal person to take over as executive director.

As a not-for-profit organization, the Couchiching Conservancy is required by law to have annual general meetings to elect a board of directors. However, the event is also an opportunity for the more than 200 members and donors learn about what the organization is working on.

“It’s a good opportunity to talk about the work that we’ve done over the past year and look ahead to what is coming up,” Hangaard said. “We also recognize some of the exceptional people who have worked with us, volunteered, and donated land over the years.”

Over the past year, the conservancy was able to protect the Hancock and Frantzke Williamson easements in Oro-Medonte.

“I feel very proud of that,” Hangaard said. “People that make that decision to either donate their land or create easements are really special people and it always feels good to acknowledge that.”

This year, the conservancy is working on a project called the delayed hay program.

“It provides a financial incentive for farmers to delay haying their fields until July 15,” Hangaard explained. “It will give grassland birds time to fledge.”

Grassland bird populations in Canada have declined by 60 per cent since the 1970s, she says, which is the inspiration behind the region-wide program.

The conservancy also plans to use drones and video cameras in the coming year to tell stories of the land it is hoping to protect.

“Our conservation biologist, Toby Rowland, will be heading out on foot and in a boat to traverse the landscape on the west side of Lake Couchiching,” Hangaard said. “We focused a lot of our effort up until now on the east side of Lake Couchiching and have been quite successful.”

Next year, the conservancy will celebrate its 30th year.

“Our motto of protecting nature for future generations says it all,” Hangaard said. “If we want to have clean water, clean air, and land that will sustain our lives and future, this is the most important thing we can be doing.”

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