As a local making his first contribution to The Local, I have a friendly challenge for you by means of my introduction. If you’re a NOTL local yourself, or perhaps a visitor whose eyes have perchance found this page, then I hope you are about to see your surrounding natural world in a whole new perspective. I’m certain if you live in this town, you already have plenty to appreciate — I mean really, how can you not? NOTL is safe, beautiful, entertaining, and holds a character of immense stature on the world stage. The challenge now, if you haven’t already, is to open yourself up to the natural wonders in NOTL and Niagara Region. Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. Enter a 26-year-old, who can be spotted at the ice rink, your favourite pub in town, or perhaps impossible to spot when I’m in Niagara’s “other” backyard with my cameras, field guides, and hiking gear. That’s me. I spent my earliest days on the outskirts of Queenston, crawling, then running (and sometimes back to crawling) up the slopes of the Niagara Escarpment. Back then, I wasn’t truly aware of the significance that was my backyard. However, one unmistakable feeling that enveloped me as a kid is that this area had a certain gravity to it. The massive oak trees, unending rocky outcrops, and residents of both feathers and scales all seemed to operate as one unit, this thing we call nature. The woods of the escarpment were constantly presenting new sights and scenarios that I wanted more of, and they continue to do so more than 20 years later. I’m fortunate that Niagara’s wild spaces have stuck with me, and I have stuck with them. My interest in these nationally unique ecosystems never faded in the slightest, and like an old friend, I’ve had to jump in and try to help them at times. I’ve been in the thick of it with mud, mosquitoes, and decision-makers who all have a place in Niagara — sometimes literally all at once. Why bother? Is it because a true nature geek never runs out of batteries? There’s that, but consider the statistic I’m about to tell you. It should lay the groundwork for future articles that I hope inspire you about NOTL’s natural features. Approximately 90 per cent of NOTL and the Niagara region’s original wetlands and forest cover are gone. The only thing that makes this number more startling is that we were never taught this in school. Life moves along, the trees photosynthesize, the salamanders dig in, and we relax on the back patio with some fine Niagara wine. There is a lot more happening out there than meets the eye. This is why I feel the passion to educate the public about the remaining hidden corners. While I was acquiring a Bachelor of Science in biodiversity (the diversity of life-species, genetics, and ecosystems), I became fully switched on to the value of Niagara’s green spaces. This is why I produced “Hidden Corners: NIAGARA,” a nature documentary free on YouTube. When you think of Niagara and NOTL, do you think of blue spotted salamanders? Valleys where you can’t hear any traffic? Tree frogs, rattlesnakes, or big cats? Ancient flooded woods? That big forested ridge rising above the vineyards on your way to Niagara Falls is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and the type of forest that clings to it is found in only 1 per cent of Canada, yet it contains more species of plants and animals than anywhere else in the country. Now consider that southern Ontario is one of the fastest-growing regions of the nation, and we have a lot to talk about. I’m currently typing this from Cairns, Australia. I’m working on a new nature documentary here showcasing the unique and ancient rainforests of the region, which, like our forests in Niagara, cover less than 1 per cent of the country. Once I return mid-March, I will hit the ground running with my hiking tours. I’ll also be working as a forest school educator at Heartland Forest in Niagara Falls. In NOTL, keep your eyes peeled for a local garbage cleanup I will organize (they are more fun than they sound, I promise).