Speaking in front of Hamilton-area mayors, MPs and one provincial cabinet minister didn't stop Bruce Trail Conservancy president Neil Hester from quoting a Muppet.
"It's not easy being green," said the Milton resident, invoking Kermit the Frog's 1970 Sesame Street classic for an audience at Burlington's Royal Botanical Gardens.
Some in attendance let out a knowing chuckle. Many of them conservationists, they had gathered for the official launch of the Cootes to Escarpment Ecopark system, the ambitious plan to protect, restore and ultimately link 2,000 hectares of environmentally sensitive land between Dundas and a part of the Niagara Escarpment that runs through west Burlington.
According to the Hamilton Conservation Foundation, the area contains over 1,500 species of animals, 50 of which are considered "at-risk."
"There were times that I honestly doubted that we would ever see this day," said Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin, whose riding includes Cootes Paradise. "The reason is there were just so many partners, that it was just too huge an undertaking."
Those partners include the cities of Hamilton and Burlington, the RBG, McMaster University and six other organizations. This week, the group of 10 signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to endorse the plan.
The MOU, which has not been released to the public, formalizes the partnership and lays out a three-year roadmap for how the stakeholders will manage protected lands, pursue changes in environmental legislation and fundraise for the acquisition of additional lands.
Much of the Ecopark expanse is already protected and comprises a smattering of parks, natural sanctuaries and other green spaces that belong to McMaster University, the RBG, different levels of government and other groups.
The stakeholders have agreed to pursue the creation of a contiguous "park" through multiple means, including private land donations, the purchase of property as well as easement, an arrangement in which landowners would designate their properties for public use without formally giving them up.
The map below shows the plans for the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark system:
Though the Ecopark plan was formally launched on Saturday, the process of acquiring additional lands for it has already begun.
Burlington businessman John Holland has given 37 acres of land in north Aldershot to the project. And in April, the Hamilton Conservation Foundation bought 21 hectares of land along York Road in Dundas using money that had been raised through the Dundas EcoPark campaign.
More challenges ahead
Bringing the vision into reality will likely involve additional hurdles. In a time of fiscal restraint, municipalities are limited in terms of the amount of money they can devote to securing and restoring land. (In 2012, Hamilton city council voted to allocate $450,000 towards acquiring land for the EcoPark and it has committed to fund some of the project's administrative costs to the tune of $45,000 over three years.)
Additionally, there is no formal timeline in place to create a contiguous park, according to David Galbraith, the RBG's head of science.
"It's an open-ended collaboration among the agencies," he told CBC Hamilton. "Over the next three years, we will see if the MOU partnership will work and we'll move on from there."
And though Allyson Wenzowski, a member of the Dundas EcoPark campaign, lauded the organizations involved for moving ahead with the project, she said local governments could do more to communicate to the public the value of the land they're trying to protect.
"My sense is that the majority of people don't understand what we're talking about," she said. "I don't think you can say enough about how precious this land is."