Ontario’s government, following an appeal by conservation groups, says it is “committed to keeping strong environmental protections in place” as it transfers its share of Rouge Park to the federal government.
The province owns about two-thirds of land in the proposed Rouge National Urban Park through the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and last June told federal authorities it wants compensation before handing it over.
After Parks Canada released a concept plan for the federal park last year, some environmentalists criticized it for not seeming to stress ecological preservation as the park’s main goal and because it didn’t mention plans for a 600-metre-wide wildlife corridor through the park in Markham.
In a Dec. 13 letter, representatives of Environmental Defence, Friends of the Rouge Watershed and Ontario Nature told Premier Dalton McGuinty Parks Canada’s concept “is critically inconsistent with the public vision” for the Rouge as well as with plans done since Ontario declared an interest in protecting the Rouge River Watershed in 1990.
The groups asked the province to secure five binding conditions in a transfer agreement, including keeping the federal park within the province’s Greenbelt and incorporating and restoring the corridor, a “forest habitat system” mentioned in the Greenbelt Act and Rouge Park management plans.
Last week, the province issued a statement in which it supported “the vision of the proposed Rouge National Urban Park” but said its goal is to see “strong environmental protections” remain in place.
“We are actively working with the federal government to ensure environmental protections will remain at our high standard. Those discussions have been positive and are ongoing,” said the statement by David Salter, a spokesperson for Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli.
Parks Canada officials have said repeatedly the agency is a world leader in environmental protection and will not jeopardize the ecosystem of the Rouge, though as a new category of federal park in an urban area, the Rouge NUP will require different standard of protection than other national parks.
The agency is working on a management plan for the Rouge that will provide details of this approach before legislation is drafted to create the park. Work on the document will continue “through the winter and into the spring” before it is presented to the public, Pam Veinotte, the park’s superintendent said last month.
Erin Shapero, land and water manager at Environmental Defence said the Rouge lands should not get less protection than they have now and if transferred their status as part of Ontario’s Greenbelt must remain.
Although Shapero said she thought agriculture and conservation could co-exist as the 600-metre-corridor is restored to nature, Jim Robb, general manager of FRW, has expressed doubts this can be done as long as farming continues on most land in the northern half of the prooposed park.
Parks Canada’s concept says one function of the park is to demonstrate, celebrate and promote the area’s agricultural heritage.
“If they weaken long standing provincial laws and plans, the federal government and Parks Canada will be creating a bogus Rouge National Park,” Robb warned in a statement last week.
Meanwhile, Paul Calandra, a Conservative MP whose Markham riding includes some of the park’s tenant farmers, maintained any proposal for the Rouge “must respect farmers and guarantee continued farming on this valuable land,” and said Robb’s group, through its criticisms of “industrial” farming in the park, was “shamefully” standing against its neighbours.
“Our farmers work with the environment, not against it,” Calandra added in a release.
The conditions demanded by the conservation groups - including expanding the park study area from 57 to 100 square kilometres - were generally supported in a Toronto Council motion in late November meant to prepare some small city-owned parcels for a federal transfer.
Like the groups which wrote to McGuinty, the City of Toronto is asking the federal government to at least look at adding adjacent public lands to the park, said Scarborough Centre Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker.
Though he seemed unconvinced Parks Canada would weaken environmental protection in the Rouge, De Baeremaeker said he hoped for a clause stating stronger protection or more restrictive rules will take precedence.
Toronto’s motion did not specify a 600-metre-wide corridor but asked the federal government to respect and implement past park plans and “ensure restoration of a large mixed-wood and Carolinian forest habitat system” linking Lake Ontario with the Oak Ridges Moraine to the north.