Critics of Ottawa’s plan for Canada’s first national urban park say the proposal does not include adequate protection for wildlife habitat and will fragment the natural ecosystem of the Rouge Valley.
Rouge Park spans over 10,000 acres at the eastern end of the GTA. Its southern point is a beach on the shore of Lake Ontario, between Scarborough and Pickering. Its northern edges extend to Markham.
The region includes one of the few Carolinian forests in southern Ontario and one of the most diverse ecosystems in the region. It is home to a quarter of all plant species in the country as well as 95 percent of tree species in Canada.
The Rouge is now slated to become Canada’s first national urban park after a bill titled âBill C-40â passed third reading in Parliament on January 26.
The law, which is now before the Senate for approval, provides for Parks Canada to receive $ 143.7 million in funding over the parks’ first 10 years and an additional $ 7.6 million each year thereafter. Parks Canada intends to improve the Rouge trail systems, campgrounds, and canoe and kayak rentals. They are also planning to install public toilets and reception centers in the park.
âOur determination to create and protect the Rouge could not be stronger,â said Pam Veinotte, Parks Canada Superintendent at Rouge Park. She said Parks Canada aims to make Rouge the best protected urban park in the world.
The concerns of the province
The provincial government initially supported the federal Red plan. They own about two-thirds of the land in the federal parks plan and will not surrender the land for a national park under Ottawa’s current plan.
Ontario is calling for amendments to the federal bill, and many other stakeholders who participated in the consultations for the national park say their concerns and suggestions have been ignored.
Brad Duguid, Ontario Minister of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, called the bill a “joke”, saying it did not include any key elements relating to environmental protection .
“We are just not prepared to hand over ownership of the land to a federal government that refuses to put in place legislation strong enough to preserve it,” Duguid said.
Some of the concerns of Ontario and environmental groups:
Land subject to legislation does not include key areas of the Rouge Valley, including the Rouge River
It does not meet or exceed existing environmental policies that protect the nearby Oak Ridges Moraine Greenbelt area.
Federal plan does not specify what will happen to the former Pickering Airport lands (some of which had already been allocated to the park)
Click here for more details on Parks Canada’s plan for a national urban park
Anne Bell, director of the Conservation of Ontario Nature, says the bill, as passed, does not specify nature protection. “There is no clear priority to conserve the park’s natural resources or wildlife,” she said.
She said the federal plan needs clearer language on how it seeks to protect wildlife in the park.
Jim Robb, executive director of Friends of the Rouge Watershed, said the plan does not go beyond the policy the province has established for the park.
âThe legislation, as it stands, will not keep the land healthy,â Robb said. “It’s far too weak.”
Robb said the term âenhance, restore and protectâ is missing from the legislation, which he believes should be a critical part of the parks plan. His organization, the Friends of the Rouge Watershed, has proposed several legislative changes that aim to follow his ideal plan for a national park.
Click here to read more about Jim Robb: Is the Federal Plan for a National Park Aimed at Protecting the Rouge?
Federal Government Says Bill C-40 Would Provide “Highest Level of Protection” in Park History
Duguid expressed his concerns about the bill in a letter to Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq in September.
Aglukkaq responded to his letter later in the month, expressing disappointment that Duguid did not support the transfer of provincial lands to Rouge National Urban Park. She said Bill C-40 would provide the Rouge with “the highest level of legal protection in its history” and that it would work with local agriculture.
Following Aglukkaq’s letter, Duguid sent another letter in November. He expressed his displeasure that the federal government did not implement the changes he said would strengthen environmental protections and reiterated that he would not transfer provincial lands.
âThey have chosen to blatantly ignore this advice,â Duguid said in an interview with CTVNews.ca. “And … unfortunately, they took what could have been a very good initiative, a Rouge National Park, and they completely missed it.”
Duguid said the province plans to continue working on the preservation of Rouge Park until the province’s demands are met.
It is a unique ecozone close to Canada’s largest urban center. The challenges include:
Two highways (Highway 401 and Highway 407) currently cross the park
Several rail lines (including a Canadian Pacific Railway) run through the park
Anne Bell says population growth will put increased pressure on the park. “We therefore need to ensure that there is clear direction in the law to guide managers in making the right decisions for the future of the park to be protected.”
Learn about some species at risk in the Rouge Valley as well as a way to save Blanding’s Turtles in the park
Although it has its detractors, the federal legislation has the support of stakeholders, including the Canadian Wildlife Federation, which wrote a letter in June to Aglukkaq expressing their full support for the park plan. The Wildlife Federation said the future Rouge National Park “will bring nature and Canadians together on a large scale, allowing people to enjoy and learn about the plants and animals that live in this unique ecosystem.” .
The York Region Federation of Agriculture has also expressed support for the federal plan for Rouge Park. In a September letter, the federation said it believed Park Canada “will improve the ecological integrity” of the park while “maintaining agricultural land for food production.” He urged the provincial government to transfer the 5,400 acres of land it owns to the park.
The battle for land in the Rouge
Some residents of the Rouge Valley have struggled with urban expansion for years.
They rallied 40 years ago against an airport project northeast of them in Pickering that the federal government never built. These lands still belong to the federal government and the battle may not be over. According to a 2010 Transport Canada study, a new airport will be needed in the GTA by at least 2027 to meet the growth in traffic.
The need for a new airport follows the announcement of the closure of Buttonville Airport, located in Markham, in the fall of 2016.
There is still no official word on what will happen to the Pickering land, but Robb says the land would be better used as part of the park.
He said the inclusion of the Pickering lands creates an exciting opportunity to connect ecosystems – it could help connect Red Park to the Oak Ridges Moraine and even connect to the Durham Regional Forest in Uxbridge.
There has been a lot of debate about the exact boundaries of the park and who owns specific areas. From left to right are maps of the Federal Government, the Government of Ontario, Friends of the Rouge Watershed, and Environmental Defense Canada. Click on each card to view larger versions.
With just over 60 percent of Rouge’s land used for agricultural purposes, another concern is how the park will coexist with agricultural interests.
Duguid said the park can coexist with local farms. âWhat we want to do is work with farmers to make sure that as we move forward into the future, we use our best practices to find ways to ensure that agricultural uses can coexist with the needs of preserving the environmental integrity of the park for future generations, âhe said.
Meanwhile, Parks Canada says Canadians’ interest in Rouge farmland has been significant and they hope to better incorporate it into their tour plans.
Critics say they fear the national urban park plan will not help the Rouge if the federal and provincial governments fail to come to an agreement.
Tim Gray, an Environmental Defense executive, said the terrain and park operations will remain fragmented until they work together. He said he was concerned that Rouge Park would be managed less comprehensively than it should be.
You can see an official copy of Bill C-40 here.