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Rouge Valley divided: Critics say plan for national urban park won’t save wildlife

February 18, 2015

Jesse Noseworthy
CTV Toronto

Critics of Ottawa’s plan for Canada’s first national urban park say the proposal doesn’t include adequate protection for wildlife habitat and it will fragment the natural ecosystem of Rouge Valley.

Rouge Park stretches over 10,000 acres in the GTA’s east end. Its southern point is a beach on the shore of Lake Ontario, between Scarborough and Pickering. Its northern edges reach up into Markham.

The region features one of Southern Ontario’s rare Carolinian forests and is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the area. It is home to a quarter of all plant species in the country as well as 95 per cent of tree species in Canada.

The Rouge is now slated to become Canada’s first national urban park after a piece of legislation titled “Bill C-40” passed third reading in Parliament on Jan. 26.

The legislation, which now moves to the Senate for approval, calls for Parks Canada to receive $143.7 million of funding during the parks first 10 years and an additional $7.6 million annually afterwards. Parks Canada has plans to improve the Rouge’s trail systems, campgrounds and canoe and kayak rentals. They also plan to implement public washrooms and visitors centres into the park.

“Our resolve to create and protect the Rouge couldn’t be any stronger,” said Pam Veinotte, a Parks Canada superintendent with Rouge Park. She said that Parks Canada is aiming to make the Rouge the best protected urban park in the world.

Province's concerns

The provincial government initially supported the federal Rouge plan. They own approximately two-thirds of the land within the federal park plan, and won’t give up the land for a national park under Ottawa’s current plan.

Ontario is asking for amendments to the federal bill, and many of the other stakeholders who participated in consultations for the national park say their concerns and suggestions have been ignored.

Brad Duguid, Ontario's Minister of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, called the bill “a joke,” claiming that it doesn’t include any key elements pertaining to environmental protections.

"We’re just not willing to pass on ownership of the land to a federal government that refuses to put in a strong enough piece of legislation to preserve it," Duguid said.

Some of the concerns of Ontario and environmental groups:

Land within the legislation doesn’t include key areas of the Rouge Valley, including the Rouge River

It does not “meet or exceed” existing environmental policies that protect the greenbelt area of the nearby Oak Ridges Moraine

The federal plan does not specify what is to happen to the former Pickering airport lands (some of which had been previously allocated to the park)

Anne Bell, Director of Conservation of Ontario Nature, says the bill, as passed, does not specify protection of nature. "There's no clear priority to conserve the park’s natural resources or wildlife," she said.

She said the federal plan needs clearer language in how it seeks to protect wildlife within the park.

Jim Robb, General Manager of Friends of the Rouge Watershed, said the plan fails to exceed the policy that the province has set out for the park.

"The legislation, as it stands, will not sustain healthy land," said Robb. "It's far too weak."

Robb said the term "enhance, restore and protect" is missing from the legislation, which is something he feels should be an essential part of the parks plan. His organization, Friends of the Rouge Watershed, has proposed multiple amendments to the legislation that aim to follow his ideal plan for a national park.

Feds say Bill C-40 would provide park with 'highest level' of protection in its 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 that month, expressing her disappointment that Duguid does not support the transfer of provincial land in the Rouge National Urban Park. She pointed out that Bill C-40 would provide the Rouge with the “highest level of legal protection in its history” and will work with local agriculture.

Following Aglukkaq’s letter, Duguid sent another letter in November. He expressed his displeasure that the federal government didn’t implement his proposed amendments he said would strengthen environmental protections and reiterated that he wouldn’t be transferring provincial lands.

"They chose to blatantly ignore that advice," Duguid said in an interview with CTVNews.ca. "And… unfortunately they've taken what could've been a very good initiative, a Rouge National Park, and they've completely blown it."

Duguid said that the province plans to continue working towards preserving Rouge Park until the province's demands are met. This is a unique ecozone within easy reach of Canada’s biggest urban centre. Challenges include:

Two highways (Highway 401 and Highway 407) currently run through the park.

Multiple railway tracks (including a Canadian Pacific track) run through the park.

Anne Bell says population growth is going to put increased pressure on the park. "So we need to make sure that there's clear direction in the law to guide managers to make the right decisions for the future of the park to be protected."

Support for the federal plan

Although it has its critics, the federal legislation does have support from stakeholders including the Canadian Wildlife Federation, which wrote a letter in June to Aglukkaq expressing their full support in the park plan. The wildlife federation said the future Rouge National Park will “bring nature and Canadians together in a large scale manner, allowing people to enjoy and learn about the plants and animals that live in this unique ecosystem.”

The York Region Federation of Agriculture also expressed its support of the federal plan for Rouge park. In a September letter, the federation said it believes Park Canada will “improve the ecological integrity” of the park while “maintaining the farmland in food production.” It 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 been battling urban expansion for years.

They rallied 40 years ago against a proposed airport northeast of them in Pickering that the federal government never built. That land is still owned by the federal government and the battle may not be over. According to a Transport Canada study done in 2010, a new airport will be needed in the GTA by at least 2027 to accommodate traffic growth.

The need for a new airport comes on the heels of the announcement that Buttonville Airport, located in Markham, will close in the fall of 2016.

There is still no official word on what will come of the Pickering land, but Robb says the land would be better utilized as a portion of the park.

He said including the Pickering land creates an exciting opportunity for linking ecosystems -- it could help connect Rouge Park into the Oak Ridges Moraine and even link up with the Durham Regional Forest in Uxbridge.

With just over 60 per cent of the land within the Rouge being used for farming purposes, another concern is how the park will co-exist with agriculture interests.

Duguid said that the park can exist alongside local farms. "What we want to do is work with farmers to ensure that, as we go forward into the future, we’re using our best practices to find ways to ensure that agricultural uses can co-exist with the needs to preserve the environmental integrity of the park for future generations," he said.

Meanwhile, Parks Canada says that interest from Canadians in the Rouge's farmland has been substantial and they hope to better implement it into their plans for guided tours.

Critics say that they fear the national urban park plan won't help the Rouge if the federal and provincial governments can't come to an agreement.

Tim Gray, an executive of Environmental Defence, said that the park's land and operations will remain fragmented until they work together. He said he fears that Rouge Park will be managed less comprehensively than it needs to be.

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