Groundbreaking Held for Memorial Forest

By: Chatham Daily News
Monday, August 30, 2021

From left are Randall Van Wagner, of the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority; Roberta Dickson, sister of the late John Skakel; and Nathan McKinlay, of McKinlay Funeral Homes Ltd. The first memorial tree was planted in memory of John Skakel recently at the Skakel Conservation Area. (Handout)

Through its partnership with the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority, McKinlay Funeral Homes Ltd. is expanding its memorial forest program.

A small groundbreaking ceremony took place recently at the Skakel Conservation Area, located southeast of Thamesville, to mark the beginnings of a new forest.

The conservation area is a 22-hectare property that includes 17 hectares of workable farmland and five hectares that have been naturalized over the past 10 years with tallgrass prairie, wetlands, jack pine and a grass buffer strip.

Conservation authority staff met at the site with Nathan McKinlay of the funeral home this summer to explore the feasibility of planting trees on an annual basis through the authority’s memorial tree program.

“In an age of shrinking forestation, we are thrilled by the success of the McKinlay Woodlands reforestation project at C.M. Wilson Conservation Area,” McKinlay said in a release. “Over the past 20 years, more than 5,750 trees grow in memory of a loved one. In 2021, we can safely say that the reforestation mission at C.M. Wilson has been a success.

“While trees will need replacing over time, we are almost out of space for new growth. The time has come to expand our reforestation efforts into a new memorial forest.”

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

Throughout his life, he catalogued grave markers at many local cemeteries and built his own website to help families find the markers of their ancestors. Years ago, he donated one of his farms to the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority.

There are now plans to create walking paths through the area, allowing visitors to admire the Carolinian forests. Efforts will also continue to reforest the T.R.E.E.S. Park in Ridgetown and the Merlin Conservation Area.

Randall Van Wagner, the authority’s manager of conservation lands and services, said the partnership has many benefits.

“The McKinlay partnership is great, not only for getting trees in the ground but the awareness that the program brings to private citizens,” he told The Daily News.

“We have an annual ceremonial event at C.M. Wilson that brings out around 1,000 people. My hope is to open this new property up to the public with a trail, parking and signage, where Mr. Skakel’s vision will continue to impact (the) general public and have positive effects for the watershed.”

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