By Mike Adler
Parks Canada has followed up the introduction of a federal bill to create a Rouge National Urban Park with the release of a draft management plan to guide that park through its first 10 years.
The long-awaited strategic document will soon be posted on Parks Canada’s website, along with a survey for the public and dates for public open houses on the plan in August and September – one each in Scarborough, downtown Toronto, Pickering and Markham.
“It’s all good news,” Pauline Browes, a former Conservative MP in Scarborough, said after legislation to establish the park was read last week in Parliament for the second time.
Turning the Rouge Valley into the first federal park of its kind will mean the area’s ecological health is protected, she said.
“It will have the best preservation by having the national designation on it.”
Certainly, federal status and a promised annual operating budget of $7.6 million will give the valley protection it never enjoyed before as an informal park mainly on provincial land and ruled by a council of governments and groups.
Federal park wardens, present year-round and with enforcement powers, will be able to hand out stiff penalties for harming wildlife, disturbing archeological sites and poaching – offences the original park was unable to prevent.
But conservation groups familiar with the valley say claims the federal park will provide the Rouge with the “highest level of protection in its history” – as Pickering-Scarborough MP Corneliu Chisu said while announcing the draft plan’s release on Saturday – are false.
Ontario Nature, Friends of the Rouge Watershed and Environmental Defence say the park legislation is “weak,” and are asking Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne not to transfer provincial lands “until the province and the public are satisfied” the federal park will maintain policies in former Rouge Park plans to protect and restore the watershed’s ecological health.
One of these policies is the 600-metre-wide corridor along the river’s Little Rouge tributary, identified in the groups’ letter to Wynne last December as the park’s “main ecological corridor,” and a feature left out of Parks Canada’s 2012 concept for the Rouge NUP.
Instead of a wide green corridor for animals between Lake Ontario and the Oak Ridges Moraine, Parks Canada officials speak of the federal Rouge park as having a “mosaic of landscape” and built around four goals: “conserve natural heritage, connect people to nature and history, support a vibrant farming community, and celebrate the cultural heritage character of this special place.”
The draft plan, according to the agency, incorporates nine “guiding principles” suggested by park stakeholders.
One of these is to “maintain and improve ecological health and scientific integrity” of the park, while another is to “respect and support sustainable agriculture and other compatible land uses.”
In a Parks Canada release, Oak Ridges-Markham MP Paul Calandra is quoted as saying an “integral part of the plan is respecting farmers who have been, and continue to be, the best stewards of the lands within the Rouge Valley.”
Pam Veinotte, the park’s first supervisor, said she believes conservation objectives will get “a very high level of protection” in the federal plan, but management of the park will also benefit from more recent science and expertise.
“Some of these plans in the past (for Rouge Park) are now quite old,” Veinotte said this week.
On Wednesday, however, Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s conservation director, said the science proving the value of the corridor hasn’t changed. Rouge Park needs connections to other large natural areas, or its biodiversity will fade, she said.
The group, which represents 150 local conservation clubs, recognizes the watershed isn’t pristine but also wants to incorporate nearby federal lands into the park, and to allow only “true sustainable agriculture” that doesn’t cause soil loss or add contaminants to the river.
The legislation’s wording obliges a federal environment minister only to “consider” the protection of natural resources in the Rouge, which Bell argued means it cannot be depended on.
“I see the opportunity here, and it’s so frustrating to think that we could miss it,” she said.
Browes said the Rouge NUP, with highways and working farms, is not like any other national park.
“This is a hybrid, this is brand new,” she said, insisting she and other park supporters are “thrilled to get to the next plateau” in a decades-long effort to preserve the valley.
Besides the open houses, Parks Canada staff are planning on attending “scores of public events” this summer with news about the park legislation and draft plan, plus a number of closed-door sessions with stakeholder groups, to “walk people through” the framework document.
“What we found is that a lot of people prefer to meet us at community events and informal events,” Veinotte said.
Details such as designs for visitor centres and outdoor welcome areas – where some of the $143.7 million in pledged federal capital funds will be spent over 10 years – will have to wait until the lands are transferred, she said.
The agency said anyone who wants a hard copy of the draft plan can get one by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 416-264-2020.
More on the Rouge NUP concept is at www.pc.gc.ca/rouge
National designation will ensure ‘preservation’ of Rouge Park, says former MP