• Andy McKinnon

    Andy McKinnon keeps an eye out for wildlife in Rouge Park, Ont. (Photo: Peter Andrew Lusztyk)

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Andy McKinnon is leading the way through grassy scrub toward a pond when a raccoon appears ahead of us. We are a few dozen metres inside Toronto’s eastern boundary, which makes this a city raccoon, but it doesn’t look or behave like one. This animal is slim, with none of the waddle that comes from gorging on lasagna leftovers. It also doesn’t have any of the habituated-to-humans boldness of its urban cousins; in fact, it doesn’t want any part of us, and scoots along a fallen tree before disappearing into shoreline reeds.

Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic. Data credits: Satellite image mosaic © Neptis Foundation, based on 2010 urban area data; Rouge Park boundary derived from Rouge Park Visitor Guide, 2010; Parks Canada Study Area derived from 'Study Area Under Consideration from Parks Canada' map, May 2012; Oak Ridges Moraine and lower tier municipality data under license from Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources © Queens Printer 2013; greenbelt boundary provided by Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

When the pond comes into view, we spot two brilliant white trumpeter swans near the far shore. McKinnon says the pair has been nesting here for a few years, but predators and floods have killed their last three clutches. If anyone knows about the mating habits and history of swans in Rouge Park, the 47-square-kilometre expanse of forests and fields that runs north from Lake Ontario into York Region, the municipality north of Toronto, it’s McKinnon. Although he works a day job for a market research company, the amateur naturalist — who today is sporting a camouflage sun hat, camera case and daypack, plus tan cargo pants, heavy boots and a T-shirt with a detailed drawing of a slug on it — visits Rouge Park about four times a week from his home in Pickering, a few kilometres to the east.

On my half-dozen visits to the park with McKinnon, we toured natural wetlands and those made by excavators. We walked along roads, railways, rivers and trails, pushing through forests full of second-growth maples and brush thick with invasive species. We skirted harvested farmers’ fields and renaturalized areas with saplings planted in abandoned furrows. At times my pen struggled to keep pace with McKinnon, but my legs never did. He moves slowly, stopping often to investigate and sometimes catalogue. “I write important finds down,” he says. “When I can’t identify something, I take a picture and look it up later. It happens every time I’m out.”

McKinnon explains that the Rouge sits in a transition zone between two forest regions — the deciduous Carolinian and the mixed, sub-boreal Great Lakes forests — which give it a diversity of life found in few other places in Canada, including 23 species at risk. In just 12 paces along the side of one farmed field we passed turkey and coyote scat and weasel and deer tracks.

So while the raccoon that greeted us at the pond may not be rare, the ecosystem it’s part of is. Also rare — at least in the fourth-largest municipality in North America — are otters. But the formerly extirpated species is exactly what has brought us here.

To an eye used to the obstructed sightlines of a city, the greenery of Rouge Park goes on forever. The park spreads north for 15 kilometres from a narrow wedge that meets Lake Ontario. In those southern reaches near the lake, the Rouge and Little Rouge rivers have cut deep ravines through wooded valleys. The park more or less stays within Toronto territory along its eastern border with Pickering. North of Steeles Avenue, in York Region, the boundaries get straighter, encompassing a corridor of mostly agricultural land that’s two to five kilometres wide (see “Parkland versus farmland” sidebar).

Despite its size and location, Rouge Park never attracted much attention, even as it grew from 24 square kilometres of provincial and municipal land after its creation in 1995 to its current 47 square kilometres. That changed in 2011, when the federal government announced plans to take it over. The 2012 budget backed that up, with a promise of $143.7 million over 10 years to set up Canada’s newest national park, which in its reincarnation will encompass 58 square kilometres, a 23 per cent increase on its current size.

Parks Canada’s sudden interest in this pocket of land — a swath of remnant green very much in the thick of the largest urban area in the country — seems to reflect an appreciation that it must adapt to stay relevant in a country with rapidly changing demographics. “Rouge Park offers an unparalleled opportunity to meet our priority to meaningfully reach an increasingly diverse urban population,” says Pam Veinotte, field superintendent of the nascent park.

Although advocates for Rouge Park were thrilled — many had been lobbying for national park status for decades — it soon became clear that what was being planned wasn’t just a straightforward national park. Instead, Rouge Park would become Canada’s first national urban park. Note the “urban.” Veinotte, though, says it will not be a sub-class of national park, but instead a new, fourth designation under the Parks Canada umbrella, joining national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas. That designation, the legislation for which hasn’t yet been written, has some worried that increased human activity in the park could damage its fragile ecosystem.

While there may be uncertainty and questions about whether people and nature can effectively coexist in this setting — whether the right balance between human use and sound ecological management can be struck — one thing is clear: the idea of a national urban park has sparked the community’s interest. Last June, Parks Canada released a concept for the proposed park. More than 10,000 people offered input on it during four months of public consultation. “This park,” says Veinotte, “has captured the imagination of the people.”

Conservationist Jim Robb, who worries about Rouge Park’s ecological future, talks to students. (Photo: Peter Andrew Lusztyk)

The fact there’s still something worthy of people’s imagination here is thanks to a group of people who — against the perceived wisdom of the 1980s — said this edge of Toronto didn’t need more suburban housing.

Glenn de Baeremaeker is president of Save the Rouge Valley System and a Toronto city councillor, but he can remember a time when his voice didn’t carry the weight it does now. In 1987 he was working for the group when a motion came before Scarborough community council to change zoning so that almost all of Toronto’s lands in what is now Rouge Park would be designated for residential development. “I didn’t think it should be paved, I thought it should be public parkland,” he says. “So I took a map and spent a night hand-drawing boundaries around 25,000 acres [100 square kilometres].” It was an audacious idea at the time, and de Baeremaeker heard about it. “People thought we were crazy,” he says.

The rezoning attempt was defeated. Pauline Browes, at the time a Scarborough MP in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government, then stepped in and started the land on its march toward protected status. She convinced Tom McMillan, minister of the environment at the time, to see the valley for himself. He was impressed, and in 1988 offered $10 million of federal money to establish a park around the Rouge Valley.

The land in question, however, was provincial and municipal, not federal. And so began nearly a quarter century of governments trying to do what they don’t do best: cooperate.

Six years after the offer of federal money, the province announced a park management plan and a governing body called the Rouge Park Alliance, and in 1995 the sprawling inter-municipal park was born. Much of what happened — or didn’t happen — over the next 18 years leading up to last year’s announcement can be explained by noting that the Rouge Park Alliance was made up of 14 representatives from the municipal, regional, provincial and federal levels of government, plus the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, the Toronto Zoo and the Save the Rouge Valley System.

According to McKinnon, all those voices led to decisionmaking gridlock. “It kept things from happening,” he says. But he adds that’s not necessarily a bad thing, pointing out that if no one could agree on just what to do with the land, it would stay more or less the same, with few facilities, modest promotion and little money for wide-scale renaturalization.

On the other hand, leaving the park alone has left it underserviced. There are just 16 kilometres of sanctioned trails. The only bathrooms are at Lake Ontario. There are no visitor centres, canoe rentals, drinking fountains or cycling trails.

There are, however, bus stops. The fact that public transit can get visitors from across the Greater Toronto Area to Rouge Park fits nicely with Parks Canada’s new priority of being more appealing and accessible to people who don’t have many national park landscapes as backdrops in family photo albums.

“Our protected places are difficult to get to,” says Veinotte. “But one in five Canadians lives within an hour’s drive of this park.” She adds that by 2018, visitors can expect more than the smattering of roadside signs that mark the park’s boundaries today. “You will feel a sense of arrival that befits a very special place,” she says. Though quick to repeat that plans are formative, Veinotte envisions a visitor’s centre, interpretive displays, north–south connections to link disjointed hiking trails and new multi-use trails.

Job number one, though, will be to let nature lovers know what they can find just a bus ride away. “We need better awareness of it,” says Veinotte, who was surprised at the number of people at the 30 community meetings held last summer who said they had only recently heard about the park. “Without it being top of mind, there won’t be support for conservation.”

There was a time when Jim Robb’s voice was among those calling for Parks Canada to set up shop in Rouge Park. Now he’s presenting evidence to the federal Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, arguing that Parks Canada’s concept of a national urban park will “undermine” Rouge Park’s ecological health by prioritizing people over nature.

I paddled 20 kilometres of the Rouge River with him in May 2011. Our trip started in Milne Dam Conservation Area, a non-contiguous parcel of Rouge Park in Markham, where we canoed across a reservoir first created for industry in the 1820s. Kingfishers and blue herons fished nearby as we paddled, and Robb, a forester by trade, told me he’d like to see the small lake renaturalized into a wetland. Robb has been advocating for the Rouge for almost 27 years, first with Save the Rouge Valley System. He’s been with Friends of the Rouge Watershed since 1992, and is now that organization’s general manager. As a former vice-chair of Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Board, he knows his way around conservation regimes.

As our canoe glanced off rocks, Robb lamented how upstream deforestation had lowered the water table. He told me that with five per cent forest cover, Markham is one of the least forested municipalities in southern Ontario, and detailed the resulting problems with water quality and erosion. “That’s why we need Parks Canada here,” he said. “They are the ecological specialists.”

Lake Ontario has long drawn summer visitors to Rouge Park, but it’s hoped that new hiking trails and a visitor’s centre will attract more people to the park’s interior. (Photo: Peter Andrew Lusztyk)

A year and a half later, with Parks Canada having released their park concept, Robb and Kevin O’Connor, president of Friends of the Rouge Watershed, are giving me a tour by road. They have come to think that the sometimes-impotent Rouge Park Alliance — disbanded last year to make way for Parks Canada — looked pretty good.

Robb drives to the proposed northern boundary of the park. It ends abruptly at a subdivision where 19th Avenue meets York Durham Line road. “Parks Canada says Rouge Park is supposed to link Lake Ontario to the foot of the Oak Ridges Moraine,” says Robb, referencing the 160-kilometre- long stretch of rolling glacial till across the top of the Greater Toronto Area that’s provincially protected. “This isn’t the foot, this is the toe. These boundaries were based on politics, not hydrology.” He shows me a map that indicates the northern end of the park does overlap the moraine, but not by much. Then he points east across the road to more than 40 square kilometres of land within the provincial greenbelt that’s already owned by the federal government. This federal land, the map shows, extends four kilometres farther north than the proposed park, deeper into moraine territory.

The land was excluded from the study area that the Rouge Park Alliance provided to Parks Canada. Robb believes that the broad interests of a larger, ecologically healthy park fell victim to the narrower interests of farmers who are already leasing ground in these off-limits federal lands. He says he doesn’t blame Parks Canada, and that electoral politics have put a limit on the park, at least for now.

Most worrisome to Robb and O’Connor is Parks Canada’s silence on the issue of a 600-metre-wide corridor along the Little Rouge River, where ecology should trump all else, something that has been enshrined in every planning document since the park’s creation. He doesn’t see it explicitly mentioned in Parks Canada’s 18-page park concept. Robb cites a 2013 Environment Canada study called How Much Habitat is Enough?, which argues that the minimum width of a forested area needed to create interior forest habitat is 500 metres. “It’s only then that you get a natural system, with a closed tree canopy that is safe from edge effects like an abundance of raccoons, skunks, crows and invasive species,” he says.

Despite the lack of mention in the park concept, Veinotte says Parks Canada is “committed to an ecological connection,” and points out that the strategic management plan for the park, a significantly more detailed document than the concept statement, has yet to be written.

O’Connor, however, still wishes the starting point were a little more ecology-minded. “This is not what we were advocating for,” he says. “Nature isn’t the focus. If people are put first, we will overuse and abuse it. In the 1990s, the Rouge Park Alliance chose the best long-term vision for this park. We are asking for the same. I want to come here before I die and look at something magnificent, not a tattered quilt.”

But “tattered” is a word some might use to describe the current park, operating as it is with only six staff, relying largely on volunteer labour for conservation work.

Serena Lawrie is a board member of the Rouge Valley Foundation, the organization that operates the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre, which runs regular guided walks through the park. As she stands outside the centre’s farmhouse headquarters waiting for a school group, I ask her if the park is being adequately protected as is. “Not really,” she says, hesitantly. “There isn’t much money. The park hasn’t done a major, season-wide species inventory since the late 1990s. The trails are falling apart. People don’t know where to go, so they make their own trails. But nobody polices it.” Lawrie notes that the publicity generated by Parks Canada’s arrival has already resulted in more people visiting, ultimately a good thing for her organization, which tries to raise awareness for the park. “It used to be mainly retirees, but there are a lot more young people now,” she says.

Speaking of young people, two classes from Scarborough’s St. Kevin Catholic School have arrived. Teacher Neil Kulim herds them into groups. Kulim tells me how his father brought him to the valley in the 1980s to ride bikes, get lost, climb ravine walls and explore crumbling homesteads. In turn, Kulim has been bringing classes to the park since 2007.

“I thought we were going to lose most of this place in the 1990s,” he tells me, gesturing past the end of a meadow along the Lookout Trail toward houses on the far side of Meadowvale Road. “I remember knocking on doors in that neighbourhood in 1999 and handing out flyers about the park. People would ask me, ‘What’s the Rouge Valley?’”

A group leader asks if anyone knows what a dung beetle is. Half the hands go up. Kulim points to a student near the back in brand-new rubber boots and tells me that last week the student didn’t know what a canoe or coyote was. I follow one boy who stops in front of a puddle on the trail. “These Jordans cost $200,” he points out, before steering his sneakers well clear of the wet. We descend to a gravel flat beside the kneedeep Little Rouge River. The students investigate tentatively. One of them asks Kulim if they can touch the water.

“Hey, I found a turtle,” one kid yells.

“No, you found a frog,” corrects another.

As the kids explore, I ask Joanne Willock, a parent volunteer, how often she visits the park. She looks at her son standing on the bank. “It’s embarrassing,” she says. “I didn’t even really know this was here. We don’t live that far away. All these housing developments around here, they’re called ‘Valley This’ and ‘Valley That,’ but you lose sight of what a real valley is. He’s nine and this is the first time he’s walked in a river.” I look over and see that despite the initial apprehension, the childhood inclination toward getting one’s feet wet has taken over. Those in sneakers are up to their ankles. The tops of more than one rubber boot have been breached.

Even the kid who didn’t want to get his running shoes dirty has to be called back from the gravel bar he’s wandering down. When he returns, clay has caked his laces. It’s taken five minutes to turn him into a poster child for Parks Canada’s new stated aim of introducing kids, city-folk and new Canadians to nearby nature.

It’s later that same afternoon that I’m looking out over raccoons and swans at the pond with Andy McKinnon, the amateur naturalist. He points to a stand of birch trees beyond the north bank that he says were some of the first planted in the park. Last year, volunteers planted 100,000 saplings across the park. McKinnon has mixed feelings about such restorations, and believes that, ideally, nature needs only time to heal. But he knows that human influence is not going away in Rouge Park. “I’ve seen more interest in the park already,” he says. “There are more and more people around.”

That there are more visitors to the park no doubt pleases those who envision Rouge Park as a gateway to nature. And while McKinnon might worry there could be a flood of people, he hopes Parks Canada can strike the right balance. “Parks Canada has a good reputation,” he says. “It could be good for the park to be managed by one body… if they get the legislation right.”

He stops as a dark brown head surfaces beside the near shore. It dives forward, and a slender back arcs above the surface before leaving only ripples. “There she is,” says McKinnon, pointing at the otter. Before long, we spot two others — it’s a mother and her two pups — and McKinnon recalls watching the mother drag her young into the water for their first swim. There have been a few recent sightings like this, confirming that, after a 30-year absence, otters have returned to the Rouge Valley. McKinnon isn’t convinced there’s a viable breeding population yet, but it’s a good start.

The otters’ foothold might seem tenuous, but as Veinotte sees it, for Parks Canada’s urban mission to succeed, they will need to safeguard populations like this. She disagrees that more people enjoying the park will threaten its plants and animals. “The success of one depends on the other,” she says. In other words, if Parks Canada wants to introduce people to nature, there had better be nature to behold upon arrival.

Explore Canada’s national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas with students using Canadian Geographic Education’s Parks Canada giant floor map.

Parkland versus farmland

Although forested trails and river valleys will be the signature attractions of Rouge National Urban Park, agricultural land accounts for more than half of the 58 square kilometres in Parks Canada’s study area.

The land is owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the federal and provincial governments, and leased to private farmers, who mainly plant cash crops such as corn and soybeans.

Parks Canada spokesperson Geneviève Patenaude calls agriculture “an important element of the long-term vision” for the park, but says they are in discussions with farmers to develop environmental farm plans.

A furrowed field may not be everyone’s idea of prime parkland, but agricultural land does offer an ecological buffer from urban areas by providing wildlife corridors, habitat and food. Still, many environmentalists, including Jim Robb of Friends of the Rouge Watershed, would like to see more of the farmland renaturalized, and question whether having so much land under private lease within a public park is appropriate.