Road construction is poised to slice through a unique and biologically diverse forest-wetland complex – unless a coalition of concerned citizens can slam on the brakes in time.
By Brian Banks
A walk in the woods with lifelong botanist and teacher Martha Webber is an education in plants, trees and ecology, in natural heritage and in the art of seeing. On this day, it also offers lessons in politics and the perpetual conflict between conservation and development. We’re hiking through a protected forest within the 1,100-hectare South March Highlands, a wetland and forest complex on the northwest edge of Kanata. A 2008 environmental assessment described it as the richest area of biological diversity in greater Ottawa, but it may be the most biologically abundant in all of urban Canada. Not only are 900 hectares of the property rated “provincially significant” habitat, but it’s home to at least nine endangered or threatened species, including the Blanding’s turtle, butternut tree and American ginseng – all protected under Ontario’s endangered species legislation.
For close to an hour, Webber, local resident Kathleen Riddell and I have been walking along well-worn paths on a heavily wooded rise of rocky terrain, laced with streams, pools and beaver ponds. We’ve seen old-growth sugar maple, oak, beech, pine, cedar, buckthorn, blackberries, lily pads and reeds, myriad ferns, mosses and fungi. We’ve passed forest-floor plants with such colourful names as ladies’ tobacco, dogbane, Canada mayflower, crinkleroot, bloodroot and Solomon’s seal. Webber has been repeatedly plunging off the path into deeper greenery in search of particular specimens. She does it again. “I would expect iris, arum, jack-in-the-pulpit,” I hear her say as I follow her into the trees, fending off branches and mosquitoes. “But it’s so dry.”
Then, success: “Here,” Webber shouts. “I’ve got an arum!” She crouches down to examine the cup-like white flower growing in some damp earth. “These are no longer common,” she says. “They’re so perfect.”
Since the 1980s, Webber has led classes and tours through the patchwork of tracts that make up the 400-hectare South March Highlands Conservation Forest – the last protected, largely intact portion of this unique area. But now, those visits have taken on a new urgency. In March, the city started clearing trees to permit construction of an arcing, four-lane arterial road that will cut through the middle of the South March Highlands, effectively slicing the forest in two. To stop it, Webber has joined with fellow area residents and interested experts to form the Coalition to Protect the South March Highlands.
They may already be too late. Some 500 metres from where we’re standing on this late May afternoon, bulldozers are cutting a swath through the trees. The city has also started dumping what is expected eventually to be 45,000 cubic metres of fill atop the Carp River flood plain, which the four-kilometre roadway – known as the Terry Fox Drive extension – will transect. Blasting and roadbed construction will follow. The city is on a tight schedule – the federal government’s stimulus program, which is funding two-thirds of the project’s $48-million budget, requires that all work be completed by March.
By the time you read this, the coalition’s worst fears may have been realized. As of Canada Day, the route had been cleared and the filling and blasting were nearly complete. More clearcutting was slated to begin south of the new road in late July, (though, as of press time, city demands for additional mitigation measures meant that work had been temporarily halted) this time by two development companies that got approval back in 2005 from the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to build 3,200 housing units on land within the highlands but outside the conservation forest.
Marianne Wilkinson, city councillor for the local ward, opposed the new subdivisions before the OMB in hopes of preserving the natural environment. But she is a staunch defender of the road. Without it, she says, a community of 100,000 people has only one north-south route, March Road. She also stresses that the new road has little to do with the new housing development. “Terry Fox Drive extension is more needed for the development that already exists in the north end of Kanata North and for the rural areas,” she says.
Despite the environmental sensitivity of the area, Wilkinson reiterates the city’s position that the project has all the required approvals: environmental assessments were done years ago. More recently, the province approved the city’s plans to accommodate threatened species and the federal government signed off – a go-ahead that fast-tracked environmental assessments for all stimulus projects.
In theory, the remainder of the forest will be protected. But numerous experts agree that cutting the reserve in two, displacing wetlands for the roadbed and introducing more traffic, more development and more people into the area threaten local species and will degrade the resource over time. Earlier this year, Ron Brooks, the chief turtle scientist with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, warned that collisions with vehicles on the new road could wipe out remaining Blanding’s turtles. The city’s chief mitigation measures – installing fencing along the new road and building several culverts beneath it to provide safe pathways between wetland areas – are insufficient, according to the project’s opponents. Paul Renaud, a coalition spokesperson, says no scientific evidence exists proving that turtles use the tunnels. “The decision to put a road through the middle of a conservation forest and cut down old-growth trees in order to do that is absurd,” he says.
Ottawa’s own forests and greenspace advisory committee agrees. In April, it passed a unanimous motion asking the city council to put construction on hold and to order a more thorough environmental review. A second city committee was due to rule on the motion in early summer; if approved there, the motion could go to city council for a vote.
The road’s opponents weren’t waiting for that. In late June, members of the coalition took the city to court, requesting a judicial review of its decision to start work. While there seem to be numerous arguments the group could have used to contend that the city is violating the spirit of provincial and federal environmental rules, the coalition chose what it hopes will be the quickest route – basing its case on a technicality. Specifically, the coalition is arguing that the city relied on an outdated environmental assessment to build the road. The coalition also claims that several substantial changes made to the project since the last assessment should require a new appraisal.
A lack of court space in Ottawa forced the parties to book a mid-September date in a Toronto court. Any ruling that halts or delays construction could be enough to kill the road project, given the tight timeline associated with the federal stimulus funding. “The forest will recover if we halt this now,” says Renaud.
Even as the drama plays out, the question arises: how could things come to this? Beyond the specifics of the struggle in Ottawa, the situation underlines important concerns about the protection provided to wetlands, as well as endangered and threatened species, across the province.
In the case of Terry Fox Drive, some form of extension had been on the planning books for years but was not slated for construction before 2014. Critics say it won’t be needed even then, that widening and improving a rough, pre-existing two-lane road through the area could meet local residents’ needs. Yet, in 2008, the planning department moved up the potential date of development to between 2009 and 2015. “It was because of the traffic on March Road,” says Wilkinson. There have been a number of accidents that have closed all or part of the road, “and nobody could get through.” The arrival of federal stimulus money in 2009 convinced the city to move construction up yet again.
Coalition spokesman Renaud, a former executive in the city’s tech sector, counters that the council is locked in a “20th-century” mindset. “Every city is pressured by growth to some extent,” he says. “But they’re also pressured for sustainability, controlling greenhouse gas emissions and all those good things. In the 21st century, we need a balance between the two.”
In such situations, provincial measures for species and habitat protection should curb the plans of ambitious cities. But things are not always that simple. In the South March Highlands, the species listed as endangered or threatened – and therefore protected under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act – are victims of bad timing, says Amber Cowie, Greenway Program manager at Ontario Nature. While the act, which took effect in 2008, mandates protection both for species and their habitat, there is a five-year lag before the habitat protection provisions kick in. Until then, says Cowie, “species themselves can’t be killed, but their habitat could be damaged.”
The only way that time lag can be shortened is if the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) produces an official recovery strategy for a species, but that is unlikely, given that MNR has a considerable backlog of work.
Critics say underfunding at MNR is also a factor in the level of protection afforded wetlands in the province. The province’s current system of preserving wetlands starts with an assessment that assigns them a score based on their overall ecological significance. Everything that scores above a certain threshold is deemed “provincially significant” and worthy of saving. While it’s a good system, says Mark Carabetta, Ontario Nature’s conservation science manager, there is a backlog here as well. “Probably a lot of wetlands out there would be provincially significant, but they’ve never been assessed,” he says.
Wetlands are not just critical habitat. They also help regulate air temperature, store water for watersheds, help control flooding and act as filtering systems to remove contaminants from the water. Considerable research shows that investing in wetland protection can be far cheaper than repairing flood damage or phosphorus contamination from agricultural runoff after the fact.
Wetlands are also in serious, long-term decline. According to a recent Ducks Unlimited report, 72 percent of all wetlands in southern Ontario were destroyed between 1800 and 2002.
Given such extensive loss, Carabetta believes it would be prudent to try to protect all surviving wetlands immediately, including the 114 hectares of that precious habitat within the South March Highlands. “So many species on the endangered species list are wetland dependent at some stage of their life cycle – whether it’s any of the turtles, the Jefferson salamander, ribbon snakes or a number of birds,” he says. “When you consider that 72 percent loss figure, you can start to understand why those species have become so rare.”
Back in Kanata, the battle over the road will probably continue for some time. A loss in court in September would be a big setback for the coalition’s bid to stop construction, but Renaud insists that the group would continue fighting. “Any opportunity where permits need to be approved or whatever, we’re there,” he says. “From a recovery standpoint, until the area gets paved, it’s always recoverable, right?”
Webber echoes a similar resolve as our afternoon hike on the property draws to a close. Here and there she points out little protected niches and crevices where “endangered things can hold on and survive.” As if to underline the point, we come upon a large turtle in a small stream as we cross a tiny footbridge taking us out of the forest. The animal is not the elusive Blanding’s but a snapping turtle, another at-risk wetlands species. We make a bit of noise to tell the turtle we are here, but other than slightly cocking its head, it gives no indication it knows or cares about our presence.
If the new road goes through, and with it come more people and development, this turtle – as well as all the other plants and animals inhabiting this rare urban wilderness – will find the intrusions considerably harder to ignore.