Niagara’s Escarpment-Decew Falls Forest, Largest Remaining Woodland in St. Catharines, at Risk

The Escarpment-Decew Falls Forest – which has been identified as an Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) in the Niagara Region, and is the largest remaining woodland in the City of St. Catharines – has been the subject of a 40-year battle between Brock University and the environmentalists who seek to protect it…The following article was written by Dr. John Bacher of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS), and originally published on The Media Co-op.On April 24, 2017, St. Catharines City Council passed a motion condemning the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC) for its not following an “open and transparent” process to change to a protective designation of Niagara escarpment land, six hectares of forest owned by Brock University.  The motion to condemn the NEC as debated at length and passed by a 9 to 3 vote. The dissenting councillors were Bruce Williamson, N. Carlos Garcia, and David Haywood.  While going along with the motion on the basis that the matter would be more intensively studied in a staff report, councillor Mark Elliott indicated that he wanted to protect the Brock forest since forest cover was dangerously shrinking in the city from the explosion of the Emerald Ash Boer. St. Catharines’ Mayor Walter Sendzik however, based on an Earth Day tour of city parks, maintained that forest health was quite robust.The City Council accepted the arguments of Brock University solicitor Tom Richardson. Specifically, these were that the NEC’s efforts at securing a change of the land’s designation from Escarpment Urban Area to Escarpment Natural Area (a more protective designation), represented a “perversion of the planning process.” Brock also attacked the NEC for its “relentless attack” in attempting to protect the forest from development, accusing the Comission of “designation creep.”The attack on the NEC from St. Catharines followed a unanimous condemnation of the NEC from the Niagara Region’s Planning Economic Development Committee. It, unlike the City Council debate, was not informed by any presentations from the public.The disputed forest, located along Lockhart Drive, is part of a 130 hectare forested complex identified in the Niagara Region’s Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA)* report as the Escarpment-Decew Falls Forest. It has been the subject of a 40-year battle between Brock University and environmentalists who seek to protect it.  Originally, Brock sought to have a residential subdivision located here. Now its interested is in the establishment of a “Research Park.”The Brock Escarpment-Decew Falls Forest  is the largest remaining woodland in the City of St. Catharines. According to the ESA study, it contains a number of rare species, including Bitternut Hickory, Pignut Hickory, the endangered Butternut and Pawpaw. The forest  provides habitat for the regionally rare Great Horned Owl. It is important as part of the forested buffer of the adjacent Short Hills Provincial Park. This wildlife sanctuary is seeing excessive deer numbers in part because of the isolated nature of its forested habitat.Many dedicated environmentalists have worked to protect the Lockhart Drive forest during the long 40-year struggle to rescue it, from what originally was a housing subdivision proposal. Of these, the most famous was the prominent Canadian author and former director of the Canadian Wildlife Service, Dr. Frank Banfield. He found that half of the disputed site is an old growth forest.During the intense debate in St. Catharines City Council this week, the Planning Director, James N Riddell was asked if St. Catharines had other recent planning disputes with the NEC. In this regards, he answered negatively, but with the qualification that he would have to check this assertion.Regarding recent NEC conflicts with the City of St. Catharines, the Planning Director of  St. Catharines could have been better informed had he been a reader of the Media Co-op. Were he, he would have learned of an important decision whereby the NEC rescued from the threat of development another major St. Catharines forest, located on Glendale Avenue, on January 26, 2017. The NEC rejected an attempt to remove Escarpment Natural Designation on a 17 hectare forest, owned by Kaneff developments.The NEC report also reveals how the Escarpment Planning staff clashed with that of St. Catharines over the Kaneff development proposal. It reveals how in this matter, the city’s planners “requested an urban designation for the subject lands.” At the same time it called for the end of the Greenbelt’s decade long freeze on urban boundaries, which if actually implemented by the province would essentially liquidate the Greenbelt as a meaningful land use planning tool. Read this article on The Media Co-op website*Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) are areas that have special environmental attributes worthy of retention or special care. These areas are critical to the maintenance of productive and diverse plant and wildlife populations. Examples include rare ecosystems, habitats for species at risk (such as sagebrush grasslands) and areas that are easily disturbed by human activities (such as moss-covered rocky outcrops). Some of these environmentally sensitive areas are home to species which are nationally or provincially significant, others are important in a more local context. They range in size from small patches to extensive landscape features, and can include rare and common habitats, plants and animals. (Definition obtained from British Columbia Mnistry of Water, Land, and Air Protection)Photo of Decew Falls in St Catherines was obtained from photohiker.netPhoto of Brock Research and Innovation Centre on Lockhart Drive was obtained from The Brock News