A Rouge River conservationist is sticking by his arguments the federal Parks Canada agency is offering Greater Toronto a “substandard version” of a Rouge Urban National Park, despite drawing criticism from some longtime allies.
Jim Robb, general manager of Friends of the Rouge Watershed, told a parliamentary committee Wednesday, Oct. 31, the proposed federal park appears too small and too weakly protected to match the Rouge Park dream created by citizens and the Ontario government over 25 years.
Accompanied by Lois James, a founder of Save The Rouge Valley System and an Order of Canada winner, Robb said the federal Pickering Airport lands should be added to Parks Canada’s “study area” for the park’s initial boundaries.
Those lands, protected like Rouge Park as part of Ontario’s Greenbelt, could boost the federal park’s likely size from 57 to 100 square kilometres, Robb said before the Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development.
Backed by letters from Environmental Defence and the Canadian Environmental Law Association supporting a larger park, Robb suggested Rouge Park’s agricultural tenants stand in the way of a restored 600-metre-wide ecological corridor which Rouge Park’s “backbone.”
On Thursday, Nov. 1, both Alan Wells, chairperson of the Rouge Alliance cooperative which governed Rouge Park until this summer, and Pauline Browes, an Alliance member and former Conservative MP, said Robb’s view were not accurate.
Robb, however, said he was trying to get Parks Canada to fix “gaping holes” in its concept plan for Canada’s first urban national park, a document Robb and other environmentalists complain does not make clear protecting the ecosystem of the Rouge is that park’s primary goal.
“Right now it’s not a bonafide national park, it’s a bogus national park,” he said at one point.
The Rouge may be the last chance to create a sizable federal park in Southern Ontario, Robb said. “We need to get this right.”
His remarks reopened thorny questions about extensive farming in the park, particularly north of Steeles Avenue, where Oak Ridges-Markham Conservative MP Paul Calandra had publicly insisted the government respect the farmers’ tenancies before he agreed to support creation of a federal park.
Parks Canada’s concept document mentions four educational hubs, one of which would demonstrate and celebrate agriculture.
On Thursday, Robb called the tenant farmers “a political constituency that’s being catered to,” one that takes up 70 per cent of the park’s land in Markham and uses pesticides and genetically-modified crops that can harm the environment.
He argued the ecological corridor, enshrined in the existing Rouge Park Management Plan as part of the Greenbelt and a chance to restore interior forest habitat in the Rouge, could not be created in such an “industrial farm park.”
“The question has to be asked: What is in the greatest public good?” he added, comparing the ecology of the Rouge to a “tattered quilt,” slowly being surrounded by suburbs, which will not survive unless it is reconnected and restored within the Greenbelt.
Park Superintentant Pam Veinotte, however, said her agency released the concept plan as part of a two-stage process and said any belief Parks Canada is not committed to conservation and ecological health in the Rouge is “simply inaccurate.”
The agency’s strong conservation principles will soon be used to write a comprehensive strategic plan spelling out its environmental goals for the federal park, she said. “We feel we can achieve better and real conservation results in the Rouge,” said Veinotte.
“We want to improve biodiversity.”
But while Parks Canada recognizes the need for more natural corridors across the park, and will “look more deeply” to find ways to enhance them, it is taking a “holistic approach” to the park, Veinotte said, “truly a Canadian first” where protection, education and visitor experiences go hand in hand.
“We’re being careful, we’re being very thoughtful; we’re listening,” she added.
Wells said he was concerned about Robb’s views.
“I’m quite confident the environment will be protected and Parks Canada and more than capable and have the resources to protect it,” he said.
Browes argued the alliance, on which Robb often represented STRVS unanimously endorsed Parks Canada’s concept, as did the province, all municipalities around the park and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
“He was at the table,” Browes said of Robb.
“I’m quite concerned that he is taking a different tack here which is not helpful.”
Browes, who like Robb has fought over decades for the Rouge Valley’s protection, said Parks Canada has an excellent record in conservation and will continue its good work in the future federal park.
Robb’s “substandard” comment “is an outrageous statement” he should take back, she said, adding FRW “has incited other environmental groups” to write to the government “without giving them the right story” on how park supporters worked so long to get to this point.
Responding to Robb’s charge that rent from farm and residential tenants did not cover the cost of the properties’ upkeep, Browes said she had reviewed the park’s rental agreements. “We’ve made great progress in getting those rents up to market value,” she said.