Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

A first for Canada: Rouge Park, a National Urban Park

Press Story

November 20, 2013

Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

A first for Canada: Rouge Park to be new National Urban Park in Toronto

by Mary Robinson

John Meek, Heritage Planner for Parks Canada, was the guest speaker for the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) October lecture which took place in Almonte.  The theme of MVFN’s lecture series this year is:  “Knowing and Caring Connects us with Nature” and Meek’s presentation entitled, “Canada’s First:  A National Urban Park in the Rouge Valley” aligned perfectly with this theme.

As background information, Meek summarized the history of the Rouge Park which currently spans 47 square kilometres in the eastern Greater Toronto Area.  Meek talked about the movement in the 1990s to protect the Rouge River and its surroundings, the formation of the Rouge Park Alliance by twelve organizations, and the provincial approval of the Rouge Park Management Plan in 1994, which resulted in government commitment and financial support to protect the area.  Since then, interest and momentum increased to further protect this unique environment.

What makes the Rouge Park unique?  For a city park, it has rich environmental diversity including significant geological outcrops from the interglacial age, spectacular vistas, the rare Carolinian forest and numerous species at risk.  The area also features rolling hills and valleys, farmland, a campground, a huge wetland, and a beautiful beach on Lake Ontario.

There is evidence of human history dating back over 10,000 years within the Park.  The Rouge River and its valleys, forests and wetlands, along with the animals and plants sustained small nomadic groups, and later on, larger permanent settlements.  The remains of a 1600s Seneca village, known as “Bead Hill”, is a sensitive archaeological site within the Park which is not presently open to the public.  The Park also includes an original portage route that was created by First Nations peoples, and later used by early European fur traders, explorers and settlers.  Today, the Park includes an active farming community and the only working farms in Toronto.  The Toronto Zoo is located nearby and sometimes hikers walking in the woods near the Zoo can hear lions roaring.  These are but some of the glimpses of the Park that Meek shared, along with many beautiful photographs convincing us that the Rouge Park is, indeed, a very special place.

 

Who visits the Rouge Park?  Hikers, photographers, families, scientists, students, naturalists, tourists, new Canadians and many others all enjoy the Park.  Thousands of volunteers and citizen scientists help each year to nurture and protect the area.  Planting trees, planting native shoreline vegetation, and monitoring the quality of the streams and rivers are examples of the volunteers’ efforts.  In September 2013, the world’s largest Bio Blitz took place in the Rouge Park; hundreds of volunteers identified  762 species of plants, 225 species of birds, 55 species of fish, 27 species of mammals, and 19 species of reptiles and amphibians.  Moreover, in each category several of the species identified are rare either locally or nationally.

What activities are available in the Park?   People can hike on 18 km of hiking trails and, if they wish, they can take a guided hike.  They can canoe, fish, camp, picnic, take photographs, or geo-cache.  They can visit some of the working farms, and take part in the many organized events the Park offers throughout the year.  Basically people come to connect with nature and cultural history.

So why is the Federal Government, through Parks Canada, taking over now?  During the last decade or so, people involved with the Rouge Park recognized the lack of a shared vision and the need for more funding and a new governance structure.  In 2010 the Rouge Park Alliance completed a Governance Report which recommended that Parks Canada take over as steward for a national urban park.  In 2011 this was cited in the Speech from the Throne and in the 2012 Budget, the Federal Government committed to the further preservation of Canada’s natural beauty through the creation of its first National Urban Park in the Rouge Valley, Ontario.

What land will become part of this new National Urban Park?  The proposed National Urban Park will stretch from Lake Ontario in the south to the Oak Ridges Moraine in the north – an area that increases the size of the current Rouge Park by 14%.  The proposed area would be 13 times larger than Vancouver’s Stanley Park.  Land once owned by Transport Canada is now committed to the new National Urban Park.  Some of this land is currently occupied by tenant farmers and commercial tenants through various lease arrangements.  The tenants will be allowed to stay on the land and live and work within the new Park boundaries.  Some other land, which is owned privately, will be excluded from the Park.

Why will this area be called a National Urban Park and not simply a National Park?  One key difference is that it will be managed by way of a different conservation approach than that for National Parks, where natural processes like forest fires or floods are usually allowed to take their natural course.  This is not possible in the Rouge Park with it being situated within Canada’s largest city.  Moreover, the many tenants who are living within the Park, the two major highways (401 and 407) running through the Park, and its situation close to public transit for 7,000,000 people all make this a unique urban environment, very different from Canada’s National Parks.

What has happened since the announcement in the 2011 Throne Speech?  Parks Canada undertook a broad public consultation program and developed the new National Urban Park concept.  Their vision is for a “people’s park” which will conserve national heritage, connect people to nature and history, support a vibrant farming community, and maintain and improve the ecological health of the Park.  As a “people’s park” it will offer meaningful experiences for visitors with no Park entry fees, although there will be fees for some services such as camping.

What are the next steps for the establishment of Canada’s first National Urban Park?  Meek advises that Parks Canada is working with provincial, municipal, Aboriginal and community partners to develop the Management Plan which will provide the overarching guidance for the management of the Park and will outline the delivery of Parks Canada’s mandate.  Once in draft form, the Management Plan will be shared for public comment.  Parks Canada is also working closely with the public landholders towards a Land Assembly Agreement for the lands included in the proposed park area.  In the meantime, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority is the managing authority for the existing Rouge Park, and is working closely with Parks Canada and local municipalities to ensure decisions are made in the best interest of the new Park.  A date has not been set for the establishment of the Rouge National Urban Park, however, the existing Rouge Park remains open and is accessible all year round to visitors.

MVFN’s natural history lecture series, Knowing and Caring Connects us with Nature, resumes January 16, 2014 in Almonte. For details visit mvfn.ca.

Photo 1: John Meek, Heritage Planner for Parks Canada, answers questions following his recent talk on Rouge Park to the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) in Almonte.  MVFN’s natural history lecture series, Knowing and Caring Connects us with Nature, resumes in January. Photo Pauline Donaldson

 Photo 2: The Little Rouge River passing through Rouge Park in Toronto, in what will be Canada’s first National Urban Park. Photo by Anita Payne

Photo 3: A portion of the Vista Trail passing along a narrow ridge between two branches of the Rouge River during an October hike in Rouge Park. Photo Anita Payne