Three environmental organizations are calling on the federal government to update its management plan for Rouge National Urban Park to ensure its native biodiversity is protected and restored.
The demand comes as federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, with the help of two guides, paddled the Rouge River on Sunday to raise awareness of the park, located on Toronto's eastern edge.
Paddle the Rouge, an event organized by the Wildlands League, a local Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society chapter, was held days after Bill C-18 passed third reading in the Senate. The bill, which amends the Rouge National Urban Park Act, enshrines ecological integrity as the first priority for the park. It is expected to come into force on Monday.
McKenna shortened her remarks on Sunday due to a sudden downpour but said, when she was named environment minister, she was told by stakeholders that the federal government had a "huge opportunity" to create a large national park in the Toronto area.
She said she was informed that the government could protect the park's ecological integrity and recognize its Indigenous history, while allowing working farms to continue to operate in the area.
"We're all going to have to come together," McKenna said she was told.
"And in my job, I think that's the lesson I've learned, whether it's trying to tackle climate change or to expand protected areas, it's just way better when everyone comes together."
Wynne said she is pleased that the province played a role in helping to create the park.
"I'm proud to be part of a government that has partnered with the federal government to make this happen and to stand strong so that we are doing this in a good way," Wynne said.
Friends of the Rouge Watershed, Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature, meanwhile, say an updated park management plan must work to protect and restore the park's native biodiversity and to prevent stresses on the park from the surrounding environment.
Jim Robb, volunteer general manager of the Friends of the Rouge Watershed, said the federal government needs to implement existing land use management and conservation plans drafted by the Ontario government.
The plans include recommendations for wetland, grassland, forest and watershed conservation and contain recommendations for improving water quality, reducing flooding and improving biodiversity.
"It's great that the goal is ecological integrity in the new legislation, but that needs to be translated into an updated Rouge National Urban Park management plan," he said.
The plans should be designed to protect such areas as the Ontario Greenbelt, the Rouge River watershed, Oak Ridges Moraine and the Great Lakes, he said.
"The words 'ecological integrity' are great, but if they are not carried forward into an updated Rouge National Park management plan, they won't have much meaning," he said.
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said in a news release that the park is not a green oasis onto itself and the federal government must take into account that it borders a large urban area.
"The new Rouge National Park is a gift to Canada, and to protect it within a stressed landscape, it must be managed to include the decades of conservation decisions made in pre-existing plans for the park and adjacent ecosystems," Gray said.
When it is completed, Rouge National Urban Park will house much of the lower Rouge River watershed. It is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, including 23 species at risk.