Activists in Niagara Falls are camping this week, sharing a habitat with the blue spotted salamanders and black gum trees that they say are threatened by a proposed $1 billion-plus development called "Paradise."

They're in the Thundering Waters Forest to protest a controversial planned housing, retail and entertainment development, backed partly by Chinese investors, on 484 acres near Marineland.

The land has a mix of habitats and landscapes, including Carolinian forest, swamplands, a grassland or savannah section and 95 hectares of provincially significant wetlands.

The development still has months of reports and approvals to obtain before it can move forward, but the protestors want to send a message to politicians and bureaucrats who are currently meeting with developers. 

The project has been in the works for two years, and the developer is expected to file paperwork for an official plan amendment in the next few weeks. Niagara Falls city planners expect it will take about six months after that to bring a plan to council for a vote.

Concern about wetlands

The activists are worried that even though some of the lands are protected, the development on any of the land would box in the species that have flourished in the wide-open spaces that are there now.

The remaining wetlands, even if they were protected, would be surrounded by urban development, which carries a different kind of runoff and impact, they said, and potentially "choke" the ecosystem, they say.

"By protecting the savannah area around the provincially significant wetlands, we also protect the wetlands," said Owen Bjorgan, one of the campers, who lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake. "It's all one large ecosystem."

Owen Bjorgan

Activists are camping in the Thundering Waters Forest to protest a planned development that they say would compromise the plant and animal life that calls it home. (Owen Bjorgan)

Bjorgan studied biodiversity at the University of Guelph and makes nature documentaries and does environmental public speaking for a living. He slept on the site in a hammock tent on Sunday night. 

"Honestly, between the ambient noise of the breeze and all the insects out here in the savannah section at night, it was one of the best sleeps I had in my life," he said. 

They plan to stay on-site for a week.

Bjorgan called for local politicians, many of whom have shown support for the development project, to learn more about the "incredible" land that is there. He said the political decision-making has not been transparent.

Replace lost wetlands elsewhere

The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority previously recommended that the project could use a conservation method called "biodiversity offsetting," where developers would have to recreate three times the amount of wetlands nearby as the amount that was lost, but environmentalists have decried that idea.

The attention so far has resulted in more wetlands gaining provincial status.

The region of Niagara asked the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to review the environmental impact study for the Thundering Waters project, and the ministry added 18 hectares, or 45 acres, of wetlands to the provincially significant registry.

The remapping has added uncertainy to the project, raising questions about how much of the land would be allowed to be developed.

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati was not available for comment while the conservation authority did not respond to CBC requests for comment.

"We're here to take a stand on it before it gets paved over," Bjorgan said. "That's what we're going to be doing over the next week."