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National Parks Go Urban

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The federal government has announced an exciting NIMBY project. It will put nature in millions of backyards by establishing Canada's first urban National Park in the country's largest urban area.

Nestled in the east end of the Greater Toronto Area, Rouge National Park will be unlike any other. It won't offer the panoramas of Jasper or Banff, or provide a safe haven for polar bears, like Manitoba's Wapusk National Park, or be larger than some European countries, like Wood Buffalo National Park. But it will help connect urban dwellers with nature and ultimately protect and restore a once-great forest.

Rouge National Park will be established within the heart of one of the fastest growing urban areas in North America, with millions of people already living outside its borders. Home to a wealth of plant and animal life, like snapping turtles, butternut trees, and rare wetland flowers, the area's significant and growing human footprint is already evident -- two major highways, nearby housing estates, and stormwater drainage. Managing existing and future infrastructure in the park, especially roads, will be critical so the growth and spread of surrounding suburbs don't adversely impact its sensitive ecology.

Some parts of the park have been degraded after decades of human use, so extensive restoration efforts will have to go hand-in-hand with formal federal protection of this urban wilderness.

For example, restoring the Rouge's once verdant Carolinian and Great Lakes forest canopy will be important because a long history of agricultural land use and timber harvesting has dramatically reduced the amount of old and mature forest in the area. Intact mature and old-growth forests are rare in northeastern North America, making up less than one per cent of forested land. Remnant patches of old forest are small and isolated within a second-growth landscape that continues to be damaged by human activities like aggregate mining, industrial agriculture, and urban sprawl. Many scientists fear that further loss and fragmentation of remaining old forest cover will threaten wildlife that relies upon those conditions to survive.

Plant surveys conducted since the early 1900s in southern Ontario, the Maritimes, and New England have found, for example, that some plants, like American yew, do well in undisturbed forests but are so sensitive to human land use that they are often absent or rare in recovering second-growth forests.

Scientists believe these plants are not able to fully recover in abandoned farm fields or old logging sites, even after hundreds of years, because habitat is no longer suitable. Use of mechanical logging and agriculture methods, such as wheeled skidders and tractors, often destroys rotten logs and compacts and levels the ground, removing the pits and mounds that are important for the growth of many forest-dependent species, such as Indian pipe, wood sorrel, and yellow birch.

Given the importance of these habitat features to the recovery of forest plants and animals, Parks Canada, in partnership with local community groups, regional conservation authorities, universities, and others, will need to work to restore areas in Rouge Park by planting indigenous tree species, removing invasive species, and in some places re-introducing and re-creating, by hand, the special features that are largely missing from the park, such as old dead logs, mounds and pits, and vernal ponds.

Much of this restoration work is already underway. A local conservation group, Friends of the Rouge Watershed, has planted more than 100,000 native trees and wildflowers in a monumental effort to reforest a section of the park that was set aside in honour of the late Bob Hunter, who helped start Greenpeace and is considered the father of the modern environmental movement in Canada. The group now hopes to restore critical features, such as old logs, ponds, and other habitat, in Bob Hunter Memorial Park as well as other nearby Rouge Park sites.

It's a fitting tribute to the memory of a great environmental hero, and it's a wonderful gift to the people of Toronto, and indeed, all of Canada, who will see the lustre restored to this once great forest. Spending time in nature is good for physical and mental health. Having a National Park in the city's backyard will offer benefits for generations to come.

Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Terrestrial Conservation and Science Director Faisal Moola.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.