Proposed Highway 413 would pave over precious nature reserve in Vaughan, biologist says

A University of Guelph biologist is warning a proposed highway through the greenbelt would destroy wetlands, forests and threaten many species of animals, birds and insects. Ryan Norris is calling on the province to cancel the construction of Highway 413.

Province says GTA west corridor necessary to relieve congestion as population booms

University of Guelph biologist Ryan Norris holds a monarch butterfly during a tour of the Nashville Conservation Reserve, organized by the David Suzuki Foundation, on Aug. 5, 2021 in Vaughan, Ont. The province's proposed Highway 413 would run through the protected forest. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Searching for monarch butterflies in a milkweed-dotted meadow, Ryan Norris gestures to the surrounding Nashville Conservation Reserve in the heart of the greenbelt. 

"Obviously if this was paved over, we'd lose this," said the University of Guelph biologist. "And of course big highways are not great for butterflies." 

Although the 360-hectare reserve is a protected patch of nature in Vaughan, Ont. and critical habitat for monarchs, migratory birds, amphibians, coyotes and deer, its southern section is along the province's preferred route for a new expressway.

Highway 413 would run 59 kilometres through the GTA's northwest, linking the 401/407 interchange in Halton Hills with Highway 400 in Vaughan.

The Nashville Conservation Reserve runs along the province's preferred route for Highway 413. Environmentalists warn the highway's construction, and the increased development it would bring to the area, would destroy the reserve. (CBC)

Highway could destroy wetlands, forests

If the province follows through on its preferred route, it would mean paving through the Nashville Conservation Reserve along with destroying as many as 75 wetlands and forest totalling six kilometres in length elsewhere along the route, estimates the law charity Ecojustice.

The David Suzuki Foundation organized a tour for journalists through the reserve last week to show the public what's at stake from the highway itself, as well as from construction and increase in development and noise. 

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"When people hear the words wetland or forest, they just don't know. It's an abstraction," said Gideon Forman, the foundation's climate change and transportation policy analyst.  

"But they come out here and it becomes real." 

Environmental groups say Highway 413 would increase greenhouse gas emissions and pave over precious habitat for endangered species. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Norris was the guide, spotting toads, monarch butterflies and coyote scat along the trail and stopping to appreciate the cool, slow moving streams where endangered fish like the redside dace thrive. The reserve encompasses a swath of the Humber River watershed and is one of the GTA's last strongholds for species of concern, he said.

"There's very few of these habitats left in southern Ontario," said Norris. "You keep chipping away, chip, chip, chip, and each little cut is another blow to biodiversity. It has to stop." 

Environmental assessment underway

The province is conducting an environmental assessment, including fieldwork and consultation with conservation authorities, with the final report expected to go to the environment ministry in late 2022. 

Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Natasha Tremblay told CBC News that Highway 413, also called the GTA west corridor, is necessary to accommodate the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) region's rapidly growing population expected to hit 15 million people by 2051. 

"Without strong action, the projected population growth in the GGH will overwhelm our existing infrastructure and make life more expensive for working families," said Tremblay in an email. "We need our roads infrastructure to keep up."

The highway has its fair share of critics.

Environmental Defence has estimated it would generate 17.4 million extra tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 2050 and not improve congestion, but rather encourage more people to drive instead of taking transit.

The National Farmers Union said the highway will mean the loss of already dwindling farmland in southern Ontario. 

Mississauga, Vaughan and Toronto councils voted to oppose the highway, although York Region hasn't withdrawn its support.

Biologist Jessica Linton holds a toad found in the Nashville Conservation Reserve. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Norris was behind a letter signed by 50 scientists in April, urging the federal government to conduct an environmental assessment for Highway 413 — before the province had agreed to do one.

On the tour, he said he wants the highway cancelled, warning it will cause irreparable damage to the greenbelt and watersheds that residents rely on for drinking water and further fragment scarce habitat. 

"And so really what a highway running through here would result in is a biodiversity wasteland," Norris said.

Highway 407, a toll route, runs close to where the province wants to build Highway 413. Norris said that demonstrates how even if there are attempts to clean up and restore the land after construction, it will never be the same. 

"If you look at the 407, there's not much there that you'd consider preserved," he said.

"Frankly, I don't think we need another 407 around here." 

The reserve is important to maintaining the health of the watersheds that GTA residents rely on for drinking water, Norris says. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)