by Shannon Wilmot

Perhaps road construction and species at risk can co-exist, but such an arrangement requires very careful planning.

Four years ago a group of cottage owners along Wild Rice Bay applied to build a two-kilometre road on Crown land to service 10 cottages accessible only by water. Local residents objected to the proposal, pointing out that protection of sensitive wetland was why no road was built in the first place, and formed the Six Mile Lake Conservationist Club in spring 2004.

Club founder and president Anne Lewis judged the original environmental assessment done for the project as “very poor” and enlisted volunteer naturalists, biologists and local provincial park officials to assess the area themselves. Lewis delivered her report – which included video clips of rattlesnakes and red-shouldered hawks in the area – to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). The group identified five species at risk in the Georgian Bay site: the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, Blanding’s turtle, eastern hog-nosed snake, five-lined skink and two breeding pairs of red-shouldered hawks.

In the end, MNR granted permission to begin road construction, but put in place a number of restrictions. Construction can occur only between November 1 and February 28 so as not to disturb species during their breeding cycles. In addition, reptile tunnels using open grid surfaces, natural substrate and fencing must be made instead of the traditional metal culverts. (Reptiles avoid dark, damp places such as metal culverts, preferring warm road tops; the tunnels are reptile friendly.)

While Lewis confesses she would prefer that the road not be built, she is willing to assume the role of watchdog now that construction is going to proceed. She hopes this project will act as both a precedent and a prototype. “From now on,” says Lewis, “when roads are being built through this type of habitat, they will have to use this type of culvert and tunnels rather than the old style that didn’t work.”

Lewis and other members of the 45-family-strong club will keep a close eye on construction to ensure that all aspects of the agreement are honoured. “You can’t let down your guard for one minute,” she says. “If you are going to take something on like this, you have to be prepared to not let up at any point and question everything and basically be a royal pain in the neck.”