Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on November 4, 2014 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Don’t shortchange environmental protections for Rouge River Valley

Ecojustice lawyer John SwaigenJohn SwaigenLawyer
Little Rouge River Banks
Little Rouge River Banks - via John Vetterli, Flickr

Every national park deserves the highest level of environmental protection.

But an Ecojustice legal analysis has shown that federal legislation drafted to govern the proposed Rouge National Urban Park may endanger vital ecosystems.

Why did we get involved?

The proposed park would include the Rouge River Valley, where sensitive forest and wetland areas are home to rare and endangered wildlife. The valley is northeast of downtown Toronto, about a 40-minute drive from city’s core. It’s one of the few wilderness areas in South-Central Ontario that’s relatively untouched by commercial or residential development. The valley also improves water quality in Lake Ontario and provides opportunities for outdoor recreation and nature education.

But without adequate legal protection, overdevelopment could trample this land and its ecosystems. The construction of highways, pipelines and utility corridors are all significant threats, while incompatible uses, such as snowmobiling and all-terrain vehicles, could do irreversible damage.

To create Rouge National Urban Park, Ontario would have to transfer provincial lands in the Rouge River Valley to the federal government via Parks Canada. A coalition of conservation groups contacted us because they felt that the transferred lands may not receive adequate legal safeguards to prevent development and overuse.

They were right. This summer, we wrote a legal analysis for the coalition (Read it here). Using our analysis, the coalition asked the Ontario government to reconsider its plan to transfer the lands. The government listened.

On Tuesday, Sept. 2, Ontario said it would not transfer its lands until the federal government strengthens environmental legal protections for the proposed park (Read the Toronto Star article here or see what the coalition had to say here).

What did our analysis discover?

The legislation, Bill C-40, the federal government drafted offers the Rouge River Valley less protection than the National Parks Act and Ontario’s Provincial Parks Act. By transferring its lands, Ontario would be weakening protections for the Rouge River Valley ecosystems.

The federal government’s decision to create a new Rouge National Urban Park Act, which makes no mention of preserving ecological integrity, also contradicts an early agreement between it and the province. In that agreement, the federal government said it would meet or exceed the provincial standards for ecological integrity.

Establishing this proposed national park under a weaker law would set a dangerous precedent. It undermines improvements made to the National Parks Act and Ontario’s Provincials Park Act several years ago, necessary reforms that Ecojustice advocated for and supported.

What’s next?

The federal government has accused the Ontario government of having suddenly reneged on a “promise to protect the Rouge watershed made in a signed memorandum of understanding.” On Sept. 11, The Toronto Star reported that Ottawa has vowed to proceed with plans for the national park “with or without the province.”

Ecojustice will continue to provide legal advice to the coalition as they seek to preserve the Rouge River Valley and its vital ecosystems from harm.

Fighting to ensure that our national parks have the highest level of environmental protection is important. And as long as there are groups willing to stand up on behalf of Canada’s environment, we’ll be there to provide them with our expertise.

By John Swaigen, staff lawyer

Photo of Rouge River: “Little Rouge River Banks“ via John Vetterli Flickr. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 2.0 über Wikimedia Commons.

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