Jim Robb sitting in a tree

Credit: Evan Dion

—As told to John Hassell

I grew up in Scarborough, at the time a rapidly growing suburb on the outskirts of Toronto. My days were spent exploring Highland Creek, Rouge Valley and the Scarborough Bluffs. Over the years, a lot of the woods and creeks I loved were lost to urban sprawl and pollution. This made a lasting impression on me. For the past 25 years, I have been an active conservationist in the Rouge River watershed. My mantra is: think globally, act locally. I am inspired by a deep love of nature and a belief that protected areas are fundamental to our mental, physical and spiritual well-being.

Working with the inspiring group of people that successfully pushed for the creation of the Rouge Park is a personal highlight. Basically, we drew the park on a map and then rallied an environmental and community-based coalition to advocate for it. In time, decision makers got excited about the idea. Rouge Park now encompasses more than 4,700 hectares, protecting two national historic sites and a variety of ecosystems, and joining the Oak Ridges Moraine, roughly 50 kilometres north of Toronto, with the city’s biggest wetland, where the Rouge River empties into Lake Ontario.

We are now pushing to expand the parkland to 16,000 hectares and to have it designated as a national park, which would boost the level of protection afforded. A bigger park would include a much-needed ecological corridor stretching 25 kilometres and benefiting biodiversity in the Greater Toronto Area. The expanded park would also be a sanctuary for people and wildlife species, some of which, including the red-headed woodpecker and the milksnake, are federally at risk.

As general manager of the Friends of the Rouge Watershed, I have had the pleasure of working with more than 40,000 community volunteers in conservation activities. We have planted more than 400,000 native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Additionally, we have restored 140 hectares of forests, 15 hectares of wetlands and 10 hectares of native wildflowers.

I also belong to the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition. We’re pushing for the creation of a Markham foodbelt and natural heritage system in the Rouge watershed that would cover 2,000 hectares of some of the best farmland in Canada and 1,400 hectares of natural heritage systems that are important to the area’s streams and headwaters. Markham is 60 percent urban and 24 percent greenbelt land. The remaining 16 percent is rural – but it is up for grabs and increasingly vulnerable to development. As I saw in Scarborough, rapid and unchecked urban expansion comes with a social, environmental and economic price tag.

And then there’s the “big pipe” sanitary sewer expansion, more formally called the York Durham Sewage System South East Collector Trunk Sewer. The sewage system carries 100 million litres of groundwater from Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario, drawing down drain water that would otherwise feed into the surrounding watershed and rivers. This phase of the York Region sewage system would require the big pipe to deal with increased volume, as the current population of 970,000 is projected to grow to 1.5 million by 2031.

But the coalition I work with believes there are better alternatives to the big pipe. We’re asking the government to stop massive groundwater wasting, avoid disturbing Bob Hunter Memorial Park and introduce progressive, within-region water treatment and recycling – such as those used in California. At present, the quality of water treatment is substandard and jeopardizes human and aquatic life.

Over time, I’ve learned how to run a successful campaign. To start, find something that is in the public interest and in which you passionately believe. Then put together a team of people with diverse talents, particularly in communications. Always bear in mind that it is better to propose than oppose.

Together, you’ll find a solution.