The Rouge River and Valley ecosystem is surrounded by more than 100 square kilometres of publicly owned Greenbelt 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.
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.
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 system 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.
This piece was written by Ecojustice lawyer John Swaigen. As Canada's only national environmental law charity, Ecojustice is building the case for a better earth. Learn more at ecojustice.ca, or subscribe to receive updates from us via email.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
MORE ON HUFFPOST:
Where: British Columbia The earliest threads of Haida culture can be traced back 12 millennia to this spectacular rainforest. Its moss-draped cedars, soaring Sitkas and ancient totem poles are jointly protected by Parks Canada and Haida Nation. Look up and you may see eagles soaring above its skies.
Where: Alberta Canada's very first national park spans 6,641 sq. kilometres and boasts mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, meadows and glaciers, making it one of the country's top tourism magnets.
Where: Northwest Territories In Inuvialuktun, Aulavik means "place where people travel." Here, a spiraling 12,000 sq. kilometres of protected Arctic lowlands is home to the highest density of muskoxen in the world.
Where: Nova Scotia Here visitors will find the famed Cabot Trail hugging rugged and rust-coloured cliffs. Whales are a common sight off in the Atlantic, the same water where local merchants pull fresh lobster, crab, and oysters out for lunchtime fare.
Where: Quebec Right at the tip of the province's Gaspé Peninsula, Forillon Park overlooks the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Gaspé where thousands of birds and colonies of seal can be found on its steep cliffs.
Where: New Brunswick On its coast, the park is home to the world's highest tides — allowing visitors to walk the sea floor when they recede. Inland, waterfalls and yurts await discovery for those who venture inland.
Where: Newfoundland and Labrador Declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site, this western part of Canada's easternmost province promises dramatic fjords that highlight a "rare example of the process of continental drift." Pristine lakes and treks up to its alpine highlands offer incredible panoramic views of its ancient landscape.
Where: Alberta Called the "gentle giant of the Rockies," 97 per cent of the 11,000 sq. kilometre park is protected wilderness. Well-kept trails invite visitors keen for outdoor adventure.
Where: Northwest Territories Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, this is one of North America's most spectacular rivers is marked with spectacular waterfalls and a unique limestone cave system.
Where: Ontario Carrying the title of Ontario's only wilderness national park, this rugged landscape offers visitors 1,878 sq. kilometres of rugged stretches of the Canadian Shield, boreal forest, and Lake Superior vistas.
Where: British Columbia West Coast beach lovers, unite. This coastal shoreline on the western edge of Vancouver Island brings together both sandy and rocky beaches and a mountainous horizon for those who yearn to be closer to the Pacific.
Where: Prince Edward Island Who wouldn't like biking alongside red cliffs and wind-sculpted dunes on a seashore path? In summer, the Island's gentle rolling hills, grown with tall blades of grass, catch the wind and breathe life into its pastoral landscape — bringing satisfaction to those seeking calm.
Where: Newfoundland and Labrador Here lies Canada's most easterly national park. It boasts both dense forest and a gorgeous coastline carved with 12 extensive hiking trails to thrill nature lovers.
Where: Alberta Located in the province's northeastern region, crossing into the Northwest Territories, is the country's largest national park. Spanning 44,807 sq. kilometres, the UNESCO Heritage Site is larger than all of Switzerland. The area protects the country's remaining bison herds and highlights the beauty of Canada's Northern Boreal Plains.
Where: British Columbia Nestled in the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, this area of land is named after a Cree expression for awe and wonder. And it lives up to the name. Visitors can witness its steep slopes and flat valleys carved from Ice Age glaciers. Make sure to draw deep breaths to take in the cool alpine air.
Follow Ecojustice on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ecojustice_ca