Ontario cedes final land for Rouge National Urban Park, but skeptics remain

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More than three decades of work by local environmentalists, activists and politicians culminated on Saturday with a major transfer of provincial land to complete the nearly 80 square kilometer Rouge National Urban Park in the east of Toronto.

Overall, Ontario has formally ceded its interest in 22.8 square kilometers of land to Parks Canada, which oversees all of the country’s national parks. The move brings the total area of ​​the largest urban park in North America to 79.1 square kilometers.

That makes Rouge National Urban Park (RNUP) 22 times the size of Central Park in New York City, or about 50 times the size of High Park, within an hour’s drive for nearly seven million people.

The transfer concluded a long, winding process that involved coordination between each level of government, multiple jurisdictions and many private interests.

The Red River watershed is home to some 1,700 species of plants and animals. (SRC)

“Today marks the biggest milestone in the creation of North America’s largest and first-ever national urban park,” said Jane Philpott, Federal Minister of Indigenous Services and Member of Parliament for Markham-Stoufville. Philpott was on hand at a press conference on Saturday in place of Catherine McKenna, the federal Minister of the Environment.

Nestled on the eastern outskirts of the city, the lands that now make up the RNUP have been occupied for at least 10,000 years and are part of the traditional territory of several First Nations. The larger Red River watershed is home to 1,700 species of animals and plants, more than 20 of which are listed as Species at Risk.

Saturday’s announcement means Parks Canada manages about 80 percent, or 62.9 square kilometers, of the entire park. The remaining 20 percent are expected to be under the control of the ministry in the coming months. A bill passed earlier this year mandated that ecological integrity be the guiding principle for Parks Canada’s land management.

30-year private leases

While the transfer has been hailed by many involved, some activists are concerned about the federal government’s decision to allow private leases of up to 30 years for part of the park. These leases are primarily intended for farmers who already cultivate land now included in the park.

“The question is whether private leases will outweigh public interests in these national park lands?” said Jim Robb, volunteer general manager of the Friends of the Rouge Watershed.

Jim Robb represents a group of local residents and park users concerned about the government’s decision to allow 30-year private leases in the park. (SRC)

Robb points out that the decision to authorize private leases came before the RNUP management plan was finalized. The province and Environment and Climate Change Canada already have evidence-based conservation plans for the region, established through field research and consultations.

Robb told CBC Toronto that his organization was concerned that stakeholders with private leases could undermine the broader conservation goals already in place for the region.

“We are concerned that in this park, if they grant private leases for too much of the park before a management plan is in place, the existing plans to fight climate change and improve biodiversity will come true. just not, ”he said. .

“It’s going to be complicated”

Other conservation groups have said that while much of the park is in need of environmental restoration, the presence of farmers – who mainly grow corn for livestock feed and soybeans – will be integrated into the identity of the park itself.

Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for the Wildlands League, told CBC Toronto that he hopes the park will have a demonstration farm for the public to help people understand where agriculture fits. in environmental management.

Anna Baggio said that while ideally a national park is mostly wilderness, farms represent a learning opportunity for the public. (SRC)

And the fact that the park came together is almost miraculous.

“We’re building a national park in the middle of an urban area, and it’s going to be messy. There have been decades and decades of occupation,” she said.

“But that’s what it means to conserve in a messy urban environment.”

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