The Rouge River and Valley  ecosystem is surrounded by more than 100 square kilometres of publicly-owned Geenbelt lands in an unusual location — next to one of Canada’s most-urbanized areas.

Located within the eastern Greater Toronto Area and within Canada’s endangered Carolinian Life Zone, the Rouge is home to sensitive forest and wetland areas, and more than 1,700 species of plants and animals.

Because of its unique location, it is also an important space for city-dwellers to get away from urban areas and spend time outside.

Research shows that spending time in nature is good for our health. In fact, according to one study, even five minutes of viewing green space supports recovery from stress.

Given these benefits, Ecojustice has actively pushed to establish and protect Rouge National Urban Park, Canada’s first and only park of its kind.

It’s been a long process, but in June we were pleased to see the federal government take another step towards ensuring the integrity of this ecosystem.

Pushing for better protection

In June 2014, when federal government introduced legislation to create the Rouge National Urban Park, it did not establish the park under Canada’s existing National Parks Act. Instead, it introduced a new act, Bill C-40, the Rouge National Urban Park Act — a statute much weaker than either the National Parks Act or Ontario’s provincial park law.

Notably missing from Bill C-40 was a commitment to preserve ecological integrity, a cornerstone of both the National Parks Act and the Ontario’s Provincial Parks Act. Also missing from the bill were a commitment to preserve the parkland for future generations, requirements for a strong science-based ecological approach to park management, and requirements  for public and scientific consultation to help create and implement the park management plan.

Without the legal protection provided by the National Parks Act, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, surrounding development pressures and park over-development could degrade the integrity of the Rouge River ecosystem and Park over time. Stronger legislation was needed to support and complement existing Ontario Greenbelt and Rouge Park Plans for restoring a sustainable system of interconnected natural areas and public trails within and beyond the Park. Alarmed, a coalition of local, regional and national conservation groups asked Ecojustice to analyze Bill C-40 and recommend amendments to strengthen the bill.

Happily, the new federal government has now addressed one of the key concerns:

On June 9, the federal government tabled Bill C-18, which amends the ecosystem provisions of the Rouge National Urban Park Act. This amendment requires that maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, must be the first priority of the Minister when considering all aspects of park management. The Bill defines ecological integrity to mean a condition that is characteristic of its natural region and likely to persist, including abiotic components and the composition and abundance of native species and biological communities, rates of change and supporting processes. This definition of ecological integrity echoes language contained in the National Parks Act.

What next?

Despite this important progress, there is still room for improvement — none of the other recommended amendments to the Act have been made.

The Park is still smaller than the 100 square kilometres of publicly-owned Greenbelt lands which surround the Rouge River ecosystem, the minimum size Environmental Defence, Ontario Nature, and Friends of the Rouge Watershed consider appropriate for improving ecological integrity and watershed health. The Ontario Greenbelt lands comprising the park’s main ecological corridor and natural sytseme between Lake Ontario and the oak Ridges Moraine have not been acknowledged in the legislation, despite their acknowledgement being the stated policy of the Ontario government. Nor have the federal Pickering Airport lands been included in the Park. These lands were set aside decades ago for an airport that has never been built due to lack of economic, environmental and social justification.

Moving forward, Ecojustice will continue to monitor issues that arise during the review of the legislative amendments, the creation of the management plan and the operation of the park.

We will also continue to work with the conservation groups that have fought so long to protect this natural environment on the edge of one of Canada’s most urbanized areas.

We believe that it is important for everybody — regardless of where they live — to have the opportunity to connect with nature and enjoy the benefits that come from spending time outside.