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The orange glow of streetlamps means it never truly gets dark on an overnight visit to Rouge National Urban Park. (Bruce Kirkby)
The orange glow of streetlamps means it never truly gets dark on an overnight visit to Rouge National Urban Park. (Bruce Kirkby)

Camping in suburban Toronto? You bet Add to ...

Two Toronto Parks employees preparing for a tree survey approach us. “What were you guys doing?”

“Just out for an overnight hike,” we reply. “Are we in trouble?”

“Oh no!” they say with a smile. “We’re just curious. It’s not often we see people with backpacks.”

As we change into clean clothes, I’m aware of that familiar sensation of “re-entry.” It feels like ages since we left the car. Our cheeks tingle with sun and wind, and our eyes sparkle with the lightness that comes from time away.

Despite passing a few powerlines and roadways, it truly was an escape.

 

A CANADIAN FIRST

When it comes to reconnecting urbanites with nature, a national park moniker comes with a gravitas no city park can match.

Last May, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that $143.7-million would be spent over 10 years to turn the Rouge River watershed into Canada’s first National Urban Park. (Parks Canada is vague on when the transition will be official.)

It is “a brand new concept,” says veteran Parks Canada superintendent Pam Veinotte, who’s led Banff, Yoho and Fundy and is now in charge of the Rouge. “It will require an innovative approach to conservation and management.”

For example, Parks Canada can’t use fire and flooding – the norm in other national parks – to regenerate plant life. Further complicating matters are the farms, roadways, train tracks and transmission lines that stand within the proposed boundaries.

Some conservationists are concerned that handing over these fragile lands to the federal government might actually diminish protection. “If it truly is a national park, we welcome the idea,” says Jim Robb, general manager of Friends of Rouge Watershed. “We have great respect for Parks Canada, but we want to ensure this becomes a bone fide national park – where ecological health is given top priority – and not some pale imitation.”

If the Rouge works, it could sweepingly change our country’s relationship with national parks. “It is critical we get the legislative framework right, because the Rouge is not a one-off,” says Faisal Moola, director general of the David Suzuki Foundation. Communities the across country are campaigning for similar projects, he says, citing examples of Bowen Island (just offshore from Vancouver) and the Gatineau Hills (north of Ottawa).

For more information, visit rougepark.com.

 

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