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Dan Bouwman's giving spirit fuels nature reserve project

THE HEART OF HEARTLAND FOREST

John Law

By John Law, Niagara Falls Review

Every day, Dan Bouwman makes time for the 93 acres he rescued from bulldozers. And every day, he learns something new.

There are the hard-as-steel white oak trees he used to build a 30,000-pound tree-house last year.

There are the vernal pools that unite the ducks, frogs and toads.

There are the rare plants, birds and insects he and his staff are still discovering.

He's a big fan of Heartland Forest. And not just because he owns it.

"It's amazing how nature really works," he says, hiking along one of the two trails he built through this hidden gem off Kalar Road. "Can you believe there are kids from downtown who've never seen a turtle?"

By the time he's done this summer, they'll have a lot more to see. His 'staff' - mainly friends and volunteers -are quickly building a new butterfly garden, frog pond and fishing area. All of it, like the rest of Heartland, will be wheelchair-accessible.

Stuff like this doesn't go unnoticed.

Last week, he received the Joe Dinely Commemorative Award from the Ontario March of Dimes for his "exceptional leadership and commitment to furthering integration and accessibility of persons with disabilities in the Niagara Region."

Another one came last night: Lifetime Achievement at the Niagara Region's annual Environmental Awards. It commemorates Bouwman's struggle to protect, preserve and eventually purchase one of Niagara's most pristine nature areas.

When told there will likely be a lot more awards before he's done, Bouwman offers a modest shrug.

"I don't do it for the awards, I do it for the kids," he says. "

"My legacy is to try to help others. That's what keeps me going."

¦¦¦

Since 1967,Bouwman has operated Dan's Produce at Beechwood and McLeod Road. When he started, he was working nearly 16 hours a day. Not much has changed.

About 20 years ago, he wanted to build a sanctuary to relax in during his rare down time.

"It had to be peaceful," he recalls, "because Dan in the produce business works 80 hours a week."

He wasn't sure how to do it. A new house? A cottage? Then he attended a motivational seminar that changed everything.

"This guy says, 'Do you have any blessings? What are you doing with them? If you have talents, what are you doing with them?'

"You know, I came out of Holland when I was 18. I started the produce business when I was 19 and a half. I couldn't even speak English. When I listened to this guy, I searched my soul ... I own real estate, mortgages, a beautiful business, nice house, nice family. I had to admit to the good man upstairs, I've been blessed."

Shortly after, he met legendary Niagara Falls businessman and philanthropist Frank Branscombe, who first showed Bouwman the industrial-zoned land west of the Queen Elizabeth Highway. He felt an instant attachment, and immediately started working on a plan to save it from certain development.

It drained him for years. Emotionally and financially. Bouwman hired lawyers, consultants and engineers to make his case. With a $1 million loan from Branscombe, he purchased the property in 2000. Four years later, council rezoned it resort commercial. It was also designated an environmentally protected area by the province.

Bouwman and his team then went to work, putting in signage and nature trails. From the start he was determined to make it all wheelchair-accessible, which was only amplified when his granddaughter Sydney was born with a severe disability.

"It made me narrow down my focus," he says. "I wanted to do it out of my Christian principles, but I'm not a Jimmy Bakker. I don't wear my religion on my sleeve.

"This is also a ministry, if you will. Taking care of the less fortunate is very spiritual."

Bouwman's vision has been contagious. Local businesses and volunteers ask him what he needs. Schools come by the busload. On some Sundays, you can't find a parking spot. Heartland Forest is a place for serious nature buffs and outdoor novices alike.

"I can't think of a place in the region that has been preserved like this," says retired teacher Paul Philp, now the retreat's education and special events co-ordinator. "There's not too many places in the Falls you can see eight species of frogs in one place."

Surrounding the forest is a highway, an expanding Niagara Square and a sign promising future Montrose Road development. Philp knows if it wasn't for Bouwman, Heartland would be destined for concrete.

"Most people with money want to build a showcase home along the Niagara Parkway. I guess this is Dan's showcase."

By now, Bouwman realizes Heartland is bigger than him. He may get the awards, but preserving a forest goes beyond one man.

"When we built this tree house, I had 20 or 25 volunteers here. My daughter says, 'Dad, where did you get all the volunteers?' I said, 'Let me tell you something ... if you go through life not hurting people, they're there for you.'"


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