New forest planting underway

From left, Randall VanWagner (LTVCA), Roberta Dickson (sister of the late John Skakel), and Nathan McKinlay (McKinlay Funeral Homes Ltd.) plant the first memorial tree recently at the Skakel Conservation Area, in in memory of John Skakel.

Even in the middle of the woodlot preservation debate and concerns over Chatham-Kent’s lack of forest coverage, one group has all but run out of places to plant trees.

That is, until the Skakel Conservation Area came to be.

This summer, Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority (LVTCA) staff met at the Skakel site with Nathan McKinlay from McKinlay Funeral Homes to explore the feasibility of planting trees there on a yearly basis through the LTVC Foundation’s memorial tree program.

McKinlay told The Chatham Voice the new conservation area is perfect for the reforestation project.

The area is a 55-acre property southeast of Thamesville with 42 acres of workable farmland that will be leased to a farmer, and 13 acres of land that has been naturalized over the past decade. It features tall grass, prairie, wetlands, and will soon feature the forest.

Each year, McKinlay Funeral Homes holds a tree memorial ceremony. Averaging about 350 trees a year donated by families to memorialize a loved one, the effort has led to thousands of trees being planted in three locations in Chatham-Kent, including at CM Wilson Conservation Area.

McKinlay said they are running out of room at CM Wilson.

“Because so many lives have lived, a forest grows. The forest there is almost complete,” he said. “And with the amount of trees we do plant, we just needed a new place to go.”

McKinlay said the Skakel site is near the farm where his family grew up.

As the trees take root at the Skakel Conservation Area, the reforestation there will slowly expand onto the adjacent farmland.

McKinlay said the hope is to one day put in walking paths through the conservation area, “so people can come out and enjoy it.”

McKinlay said the plan for the funeral home’s annual Moment of Remembrance to commemorate the tree planting to memorialize loved ones is to continue to hold the service at CM Wilson.

“With the sheer numbers that come out, it’s a giant site. And there are washrooms,” he said.

Of course, during the pandemic, the event has gone virtual. It was held in that manner last year and McKinlay confirmed it will proceed online again Sept. 12.

“Part of that service will be the groundbreaking ceremony for this new memorial forest,” he said of the Skakel site.

John Skakel was a farmer, genealogist, environmentalist and toy maker. He passed away in 2015.

During his life, Skakel spent hours cataloging grave markers at many local cemeteries and went so far as to build his own website to help families find the markers of their ancestors.

McKinlay Funeral Home’s efforts have led to tree plantings at T.R.E.E.S. Park in Ridgetown and the Merlin Conservation Area as well.


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