A group that's worked for years to protect a heritage site in northwestern Ontario is raising concerns about a new provincial park plan that some say could open the area to unwanted development.

Parts of a new management plan for the 50,000 hectare Turtle River-White Otter Provincial Park worry the Friends of White Otter Castle, a non-profit group that has worked for years restoring and protecting the wooden structure built by eccentric hermit Jimmy McOuat in the early part of the 20th century.

The plan for Turtle River-White Otter Provincial Park

  • The Ministry of Natural Resources started the park plan in 2010 and the final plan was released in July 2012.
  • The plan divides the park into specific zones and sets rules for what activities are and aren't allowed in each area.
  • The White Otter Castle itself is considered a historical zone, meaning very limited development can take place (only signage, trails and historical restoration). People can't hunt, camp or use motorized vehicles in the area.
  • The campground (northwest of the castle) is a development zone, meaning more development is permitted.
  • The plan proposes upgrading the camping area by building designated sites, tent pads, and fire pits, a float plane and boat dock, building an orientation display area, and signs, displays and self-guided trails.
  • The plan says any significant natural and cultural features must be protected prior to any development.

Group secretary Jackie Smyk said she's concerned about possible improvements to a nearby campground, which is currently just a large open space.

"I would not like to have designated camp sites," she said.

"I think it should be left the way it is, maybe with a few picnic tables but, there's a lot of flat areas that are on pine needles and it's quite comfortable to sleep there."

Striking a balance

Smyk said she’s visited the castle and the campground for years.

"The lake is incredible, and there's a beach just in front of the castle and the campground," she said. "It's just a magical, incredible place."

Smyk and her group would prefer the campground remain rustic.

"When you look at the area, I think it should be kept in the same era as the castle," she said.

"The castle is old and wood and, it's almost 100 years old, and I think the campground should reflect that."

The Ministry of Natural Resources' new management plan includes upgrading the camping area near the castle.

The park plan strikes a balance, Minister Michael Gravelle said.

"We want to be sure that, indeed, it remains as pristine as possible," he said. "But we recognize that there are important uses for people that want to be able to use them, and we're going to support that."

The MNR will do more detailed planning for specific areas including the White Otter campground before any work actually goes ahead.