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Will a national urban park strengthen protection for the Rouge?

It’s been an interesting few months for the proposal to create Canada’s first National Urban Park in the Rouge Watershed in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). In June, the federal government tabled draft legislation for the proposed park in the House of Commons, and then released a draft park management plan for public review and comment. 

After careful review, CPAWS has concluded that neither of these documents, as written, are adequate to protect the irreplaceable ecosystems of the Rouge watershed in the long term. The Rouge is home to over 1,000 species of plants and animals, including 23 species at risk. It is one of the best remaining examples of Carolinian forest and one of the last intact watersheds flowing from the Oak Ridges Moraine into western Lake Ontario. It is an irreplaceable natural treasure that warrants the highest standard of protection.

The good news is that it’s not too late to improve the draft legislation and plan. Parks Canada is inviting public feedback on the management plan right now, and MPs will be debating Bill C-40 in the House of Commons this fall. If there is enough public concern expressed to the federal government, there is still hope to “get it right” for Canada’s first National Urban Park.

Our primary concern with what’s being proposed is that neither the draft legislation nor the management plan clearly articulates that nature conservation must be the top priority for park management. In fact the legislation only requires the Minister to take nature “into consideration” in managing the park. This is a much lower standard of protection than what is provided to provincial and national parks, for example and is a much lower standard than the existing provincial policies guiding management there now. The draft management plan identifies multiple goals including nature conservation, sustaining agriculture, and connecting people to nature, with no clear guidance on which of these takes precedence in cases of conflict, and with little detail on how agriculture will be managed in the park. Clearly prioritizing nature conservation is consistent with the current Rouge Park management, and with the international definition of a protected area.

In an urban environment, it is important to clearly distinguish between parks like the Rouge, whose primary purpose is to protect nature; and traditional urban greenspaces in the form of lawns, trees and gardens whose primary purpose is public recreation, not to protect natural ecosystems. Urban greenspaces serve a critically important role in cities, but it is a different role than protected natural areas like Rouge Park which are created to protect nature. The Rouge Park has always been a protected natural area, created to save a rich natural ecosystem from urban development. It is part of Ontario’s Natural Heritage System and provides a connection with other natural areas in the region so wildlife can move between Lake Ontario and the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Unfortunately, even Parks Canada seems to have missed this important distinction. When the federal government announced in June that draft legislation had been tabled in the House of Commons, Parks Canada released an infographic comparing the proposed Rouge National Urban Park with three traditional urban greenspaces: Hyde Park in London, England; Central Park in New York City and Stanley Park in Vancouver. Comparing the Rouge to these three urban greenspaces is like comparing apples with oranges.

To respect and build on the role of the current Rouge Park as a protected natural area it is imperative that the Rouge National Urban Park legislation require that the Minister put nature conservation first in the Rouge.  The park’s location in the midst of Canada’s largest urban centre means the pressures on the Rouge watershed are, and will continue to be, intense, from both inside and outside the park boundaries. Park managers will need strong tools and clear guidance to manage the park in a way that ensures activities and use of the park is consistent with maintaining and restoring the health of the park’s fragile ecosystems. Putting nature conservation first is also consistent with the international definition and guidance for parks and protected areas.

We are not alone in our concerns about the weaknesses of Bill C-40 and the management plan. This week the Ontario government sent a strongly worded letter to federal Minister of Environment, Leona Aglukkaq warning that Ontario will not transfer any lands for the proposed Rouge National Urban Park until the draft legislation is amended to provide protection that meets or exceeds the current provincial policies governing the Rouge Park, as agreed to in a Memorandum of Agreement between the two governments. The current provincial policies are clear that protecting the ecological integrity of the Rouge Park is paramount.

CPAWS welcomed this announcement by the Ontario government and joined other environmental groups in calling on the federal government to improve the draft legislation and park management plan. CPAWS continues to support the establishment of a National Urban Park in the Rouge, but we believe it is essential to “get it right” for the Rouge before completing the transition from provincial to federal jurisdiction.

At this point we can tell you that the proposed legislation and park management plan doesn't make the grade. The next few weeks will be critical as the draft legislation and management plan are discussed and debated. It is important that the feds hear loud and clear that Canadians want the Rouge legislation and plan strengthened to clearly identify nature conservation as the top priority for park management. 

Please join us in urging the federal government to strengthen protection for the Rouge National Urban Park. Together we can make a difference.

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