By Brian Banks

Paul Renaud sighs as he describes the current situation in the South March Highlands, 895 hectares of ecologically and culturally significant forest and wetlands within Ottawa’s city limits that he and a coalition of community groups are fighting to protect. “Subdivisions,” he observes, “follow roads.”

Last year, the coalition tried unsuccessfully to block construction of the Terry Fox Drive extension, an arcing four-lane road that now cuts through the lower third of the area. In 2011, coalition members are working to delay and, it is hoped, defeat plans by KNL Developments, a partnership that owns 182 hectares of forest directly south and east of the new extension, to clearcut the bulk of that forest to make room for housing. At stake is natural habitat linked to protected forests on its northern flank, all supporting a diverse ecosystem more akin to Algonquin Provincial Park than urban Ottawa, featuring multiple endangered species, including the Blanding’s turtle and butternut tree.

Results thus far have been mixed. Originally, KNL intended to start clearing trees for the first of three phases of planned residential development last July. Various appeals and a last-ditch effort to have Ottawa city council buy the land in question meant that work was delayed until this February. But then the heavy equipment moved in and approximately three-quarters of a 40-hectare tract known as the Beaver Pond Forest was cleared in the dead of winter – with grim consequences for wildlife wintering or hibernating in that part of the forest. The only concession: KNL agreed to spare an 80-metre-wide strip to connect some city-owned woods around Beaver Pond with the larger city-owned Trillium Woods, which is half-surrounded by KNL property.

The news for nature advocates is slightly more encouraging when it comes to the 100 or so hectares earmarked for the second and third phases of development. According to KNL’s plans for those lands, stormwater runoff would be diverted into an adjoining wetland, called Kizell Drain. Late last year, that waterway was designated a provincially significant wetland. In light of that change, the city asked KNL to undertake a new environmental assessment. “Those phases are stalled, pending the results of the environmental assessment,” says Renaud.

He and his colleagues are active on other fronts, too. Last year, for example, the discovery of a stone circle in Beaver Pond Forest, adding to other archeological evidence of human occupation and settlement in the South March Highlands as much as 10,000 years ago, prompted a call for a new archeological appraisal of the area. That was rejected, but Renaud says talks continue with Ontario’s minister of culture, Michael Chan. Development opponents are also appealing rulings on the Terry Fox Drive extension that, if successful, will not undo the road work but will ensure that maximum mitigation occurs. Says Renaud, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”