Ending the feud over Rouge Urban Park: Editorial

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The news that the Canadian government is more than doubling the land it will allocate to Rouge National Urban Park would normally be cause for applause. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s announcement last week risks being undermined by an unnecessary feud between federal and provincial authorities that puts the whole project in jeopardy.

Designed as a unique “people’s park” rather than a wilderness retreat, the Rouge is meant to be a national protected area – full of nature and history – within the boundaries of Toronto, Pickering and Markham. Millions of people, many of whom do not visit national parks now, will be within an hour’s drive of its wetlands, forest trails, cultural events, and education and interpretation center. .

It would be tragic if a quarrel between Ottawa and the province derailed the project.

The Rouge received a welcome boost when Harper traveled to Pickering last weekend to announce 21 km². more federal lands will be added, more than doubling Ottawa’s contribution.

As the Star’s Holly Honderich reported, that would increase the park’s area to nearly 80 square kilometers, making the Rouge 19 times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park and 22 times the size of New York’s Central Park.

There was, of course, a partisan element in Harper’s announcement. It happened three months before the federal election. But expanding the park is a good policy. The bigger it is, the better it is when it comes to preserving ecosystems. Environmentalists have long called for a bigger Red to support wildlife conservation and protect more green space.

But trouble is brewing. Citing ecological concerns, Ontario announced earlier this year that it would not transfer its share of the land for the park. Queen’s Park controls about two-thirds of the 58 km². of the territory initially planned for the park. This could cause the project to fail.

What is at issue is the strength of the federal rules designed to protect the park. According to Ontario Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid, Ottawa has reneged on an agreement to meet, or exceed, existing Ontario standards for the protection of green spaces. The federal government, for its part, insists that the necessary protections be provided.

Federal law prohibits harming plants and wildlife in the park. It prohibits mining, dumping and harvesting of timber. And it prohibits the removal of archaeological or historical artifacts.

The province and environmental groups are pushing for more. For example, they note that federal law requires that protection simply be “considered” in the management of the park. This is a less stringent standard than laws governing other national parks which consider ecological integrity “the first priority”.

Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq argues that it is unrealistic to place ecological integrity above all else in a setting like the Rouge, which is crossed by major highways, a variety of roads and bridges. Much of it is also cultivated.

According to Aglukkaq, the wording critics insist would mean allowing natural processes, such as a lightning-induced wildfire, to simply run their course. And this is neither desirable nor realistic in an urban park. There are also concerns that farmers, operating here for generations, are severely limited in the fertilizers and pesticides they are allowed to use.

There is no doubt that the Rouge is significantly different from the wilderness that Parks Canada generally manages. This will require special rules. But there should be a way to accommodate reasonable provincial environmental concerns.

Ultimately, these are technical matters, and compromise seems the best approach. Federal and provincial officials must stop bickering and find a practical solution. They must not make the best the enemy of the good.

The Rouge urban park is too precious a prize to be confiscated from internal political struggles. The people of Toronto and the surrounding area deserve better.

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