September 14, 2011

Natural areas should be protected and accessible

As published in The Erin Advocate

Nestled among some of Mississauga's most expensive homes, and close by the massive Suncor lubricant refinery on the Lake Ontario shore, Rattray Marsh is a significant ecological refuge in the urban landscape.

This sensitive wetland is the last remaining lakefront marsh between Toronto and Burlington, home to a wide variety of plants and animals, and a popular destination for migratory birds (and their watchers). The pounding waves of the lake have created a beach of small flat cobble stones, forming a barrier that backs up the waters of Sheridan Creek.

On a recent hike along the Waterfront Trail there, I was surprised at the extensive work done with raised boardwalks and railings. These allow people and pets into the natural marsh without having them trampling the vegetation or getting stuck in the mud.

It is something we need to consider for Erin's wetlands. Protection of natural areas is the first priority, but in populated areas it is almost as important to make them accessible, with trails and educational signs. When people are able to appreciate their local treasures, it builds political support for protection and improvements.

Like Erin, Rattray is also on the route of the Trans Canada Trail, which (from the west) comes through Sudbury, south through Barrie, west through Caledon, Erin and Elora, south to Brantford, then east along the Lake Ontario shore through Hamilton, Mississauga and Toronto on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Except for the Credit River, Erin doesn't have much in common with Mississauga – Canada's 6th largest city, with about 750,000 residents. But the Rattray Marsh may have some lessons for our future.

The area was owned by Major James Rattray, who tried to encourage governments to take it over. He died in 1959, but the battle to acquire the marsh lived on for several years, as there was a plan to fill it in and build homes.

Concerned citizens were unsuccessful in stopping Phase 1 of the development, but after years of negotiation and lobbying, Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) was able to buy 82.5 acres in 1972, preserving it for public use.

CVC now works in partnership with the Rattray Marsh Protection Association, a dedicated group of volunteers that help improve the network of trails, and protect the Marsh resources through education and stewardship. Except for police patrols, no bicycles are allowed on the trails.

Would Erin be ready to form a "protection association" if the need arose? We have some protection from excessive development, thanks to our Official Plan, the CVC, the Niagara Escarpment, the Greenbelt and our lack of a sewer system. It may be tempting to do as little as possible, hoping that everyone will just leave us alone.

But anyone who has attempted to drive down Mississauga Road lately will have seen the development pressure that is building. The road is being widened, there's a Walmart Supercentre at Williams Parkway and huge tracts of land are being prepared for subdivisions.

Here in Erin, it is important to continue building up public awareness of environmental issues and our network of concerned citizens, so that any proposed development will be subjected to intense public scrutiny. It is not here yet, but the time will come when we will be called upon to aggressively defend the things we really value in this town.