Attack on the Greenbelt is an Assault on Duffins Creek

Photo of West Duffins Creek by Kristina Jackson July 2022

Photo of West Duffins Creek by Kristina Jackson July 2022

By John Bacher

The assault by the Ford government on the Ontario Greenbelt is primarily an attack on a cold-water trout stream, Duffins Creek. Despite this, the stream is still able to provide habitat for cold water salmonid species due to the successful campaign against Pickering Airport, and what was supposed to be a complimentary new town. Over time approximately half of these once all publicly owned lands (some have been sold to developers) have become incorporated into the 20,000-acre Rouge National Park. It has become increasingly a haven for rare species and a focus of ecological recovery efforts. Unpaved areas outside the park has been designated as the 4,950-acre Rouge-Duffins Agricultural Reserve, and the 10,000-acre Pickering Airport Study area. The removal accounts for the majority of the 7,400 acres the Ford government took away from the Greenbelt.

The Agricultural Reserve is to the west of the Seaton Trail and the Airport Study area is to the area. The scenic Seaton Trail along Duffins Creek was the focus of a Sierra Club Ontario’s walk in July.

The Pickering Airport Study area has a frozen status for 16 years until 2038. At which time the federal government will determine that a study could be undertaken to see if Pickering Airport is needed. Only about half of this acreage would be used for an airport, with the remaining area becoming lands for warehouses and factories. Future need for the airport will be reduced through the expected implementation of the federal government’s proposed High Frequency Rail Corridor in the Toronto to Quebec City corridor, which would have speeds of 200 kilometers an hour.

The termination of the Rouge-Duffins Agricultural Reserve has generated controversy largely because of its symbolic tie to the fate of the Ontario Greenbelt. Most of the 7 400 acres recently removed from the Greenbelt were taken from this reserve. The remaining area is scattered into small parcels, the most significant of which are two tracts of former fruit land in the municipality of Grimsby. Although small the removals undermined a key component of the Greenbelt Plan. This maintains that such tracts suitable for tender fruit growing are supposed to be permanently protected to encourage investment in fruit growing instead of land speculation.

What is most notorious about all the removals is that they abolish the Greenbelt as an effective land use planning tool, where changes from agricultural to urban zoning can only be considered in the context of a decade-long consolidated provincial plan review. Instead of such a careful process imposing a decade-long freeze on urban boundaries, such changes can happen at any time at the discretion of the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, encouraging land speculation throughout the Greenbelt. Essentially the queue has been jumped and the Greenbelt has been destroyed as an instrument of good land use planning. Instead of waiting until the 10-year review, which comes up in six years, landowners can now lobby the Minister of Municipal Affairs to have their lands put into urban zoning at any time, subject only to a short comment period through the Environmental Registry.

In the early 1990s, environmentalists notably the then quite strong Save the Rouge organization, lobbied heavily to have what became the Agricultural Reserve, included in what was then called the Rouge Provincial Park. The government of the period, headed by Bob Rae, created the Agricultural Reserve instead. The land remained under provincial ownership. While a plan was approved that set aside area such as woodlots and riparian buffers for natural corridors, the fate of the actual agricultural land, which was then under short term leases to the province, was left to a public consultation. There was discussion of the lands becoming a satellite of the Ontario Agricultural Museum, then located in Milton, Ontario. The hope was that after the consultation was finished, the lands would be used for some worthy agricultural public purpose, such as maintaining rare breeds of livestock, and declining agricultural crop cultivars.

Plans for the Rouge Duffins Agricultural Reserve, serving a serious public purpose, unraveled after the election of the government of Mike Harris in 1995. The Ontario Agricultural Museum was privatized into the Country Heritage Park and the Reserve was privatized through bargain sales to farmers, who promptly sold the land to developers. As a result of public pressure, the Town of Pickering imposed agricultural easements on the lands to prevent them from being developed. The Town of Pickering subsequently supported development and the majority of the land was assembled by a companies associated with a single developer, Silvio De Gasperis. When the government of Premier Dalton McGinty was elected, the Reserve was protected through the passage of the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Reserve Act, and the placing of these land in the Greenbelt. An additional measure of protection was achieved through the management plan of the Rouge National Park, which requires a consultation with Parks Canada before the Rouge Duffins Agricultural Reserve is removed from the Greenbelt. Based on a lack of consultation, Parks Canada has challenged the removal of the Agricultural Reserve from the Greenbelt at court.

The significance of the opening of the Agricultural Reserve to development is easily understandable to anyone who has been involved in the challenging process since the cancellation of Pickering Airport and the creation of the Rouge National Park. When the provincial park was being debated reports of white-tailed deer being seen in the future protected area were ridiculed, as if they were the legendary Abominable Snowman. Now they have become common, in part through ecological linkages through the buffering Reserve and the adjacent Oak Ridges Moraine. Such linkages have worked to increase biodiversity in some ways greater than the greatest dreams of the national park’s founders, such as the great Earth defender Lois Janes. Now the Rouge Park website warns visitors to take care if they encounter black bears.

The most significant act to protect biodiversity since the Rouge National Urban Park was established has been the breeding and release of 623 juvenile endangered blanding’s turtle into the park by the Toronto Zoo. On November 29, 2022, in a letter of opposition to the termination of the Agricultural Reserve, Omar McDadi the Field Unit Superintendent of Rouge National Urban Park protested the possible impact on the Blanding’s turtle. He pointed out that, “While turtles are released in Rouge National Park, these species move in an unrestricted fashion between the park and the adjacent Greenbelt lands.”

McDadi has identified other rare species which could be harmed by Greenbelt’s demise. One is the meadowlark, a threatened bird species which benefits from the agricultural land slated for urbanization. Other species whose habitat could be impaired are the bank swallow, the wood thrush, the red-headed woodpecker, the tricolored bat, little brown bat, and the northern myotis. These non-migrating bat species, recovering from the devastating white nose fungus, are vulnerable to any negative impacts on their habitats. Developments cutting away at the fringes of forests in the former Reserve would harm the wood thrush and red-headed woodpecker, which require large blocks of mature forest to thrive. The Rouge National Urban Park is the last breeding area for the Wood Thrush in the City of Toronto.

It is remarkable that Duffins Creek has been able to survive as a cold-water trout and salmon spawning stream in the face of urbanization in the Toronto region and a tribute to the defeat of schemes for the Pickering Airport. The Ford government has assaulted this stream which is vital to the recovery of the Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario. In addition to terminating the reserve, they attempted to have an Amazon warehouse constructed at the stream’s Lake Ontario estuary. Although the warehouse proposal died, the land was subsequently damaged by an attempt to farm the site by the developer, until it too, was stopped by public outrage.

Damage has been done in the past by urbanization to the streams which are important for the Rouge National Urban Park. The Wikipedia entry on the park notes, “Typically, in an urban area, we can expect much of the soil to be impermeable due to asphalt and concrete. During times of excessive rainfall, pollutants are picked up and rapidly run off. In -s1970, a heavy thunderstorm hit Malvern and much of the Malvern outfalls, the Morningside stream was choked with pollutants such as oil, rubber, plastic and heavy metals from driveways, roads, and parking lots. Further downstream, a breeding area for salmon and trout was negatively affected due to harm from flash floods and pollution. During the storm runoff picked up road salt which can cause contamination of groundwater.” When the Rouge Park was created the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) warned that, “Migratory fish species found in the Rouge, Petticoat and Duffins streams, such as the at risk-atlantic salmon and red-side dace are threatened by polluted runoff, sewage and decreasing groundwater levels.”

Apart from negative comments, the federal government has failed to throw a spanner into the Ford government’s assault on the Greenbelt. Let us hope it does through the Rouge National Park Protection Act. It could transfer the airport study lands to the Rouge National Urban Park and provide policies to protect the former Greenbelt lands of the Rouge-Duffins Agricultural Preserve.