The Conservatives have pledged to create a national park right in the backyard of the country's largest metropolis.
The promise unveiled on Friday in the party's election platform would protect the Rouge Valley, 11,500 acres of Canada's unique Carolinian forestland teeming with vulnerable wildlife on the eastern edge of Toronto.
The promise stunned even the Conservative MP who sits on the Rouge Park Alliance, a partnership of government organizations and community groups that work to protect the Rouge. "I had no idea this was coming," said Michael Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills. "It's so exciting that for the first time, a federal party has pledged to create a national park in Rouge Valley."
Most national parks are far from cities, so the fact that the Rouge is in Canada's largest urban area would be unique, Mr. Chong said.
"If this happens, some seven million people will be able to drive to a national park in just an hour, instead of driving for hours and hours," he said. "It's access to a national treasure."
A relatively unknown park, the Rouge does not command the same popularity as the Toronto Islands or High Park. But Scarborough councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker called Rouge Valley a "hidden treasure" famous for bald eagles, bluebirds, salamander, river otters and even an occasional black bear.
"Most people in the GTA don't even realize they have this beautiful forest so close to them," Mr. De Baeremaeker said.
Stretching from Lake Ontario to the Oak Ridges Moraine and Pickering, the area is currently overseen by several municipalities, including Markham, Toronto, Whitchurch-Stouffville and Richmond Hill. That creates some logistical difficulties.
"We've had a problem with poaching, hunting, illegal dumping, sewage ... and all these municipalities cannot patrol the park properly," Mr. De Baeremaeker said, adding that environmental advocates and local politicians have been lobbying for increased protection for more than 20 years.
That's why a Parks Canada designation is exactly what the Rouge needs, he said.
"By designating it a national park, it would be recognized as one of the most ecologically sensitive and important areas in all of Canada," he said. "And once it becomes a national park, federal parks staff will be on the ground protecting the park efficiently."
Faisal Moola, director of the terrestrial conservation and science program for the David Suzuki Foundation, said his organization has been calling for greater protection of southern Ontario ecological zones for more than a decade.
The Suzuki Foundation last year wrote to Environment Minister Jim Prentice expressing support for a recommendation from the Rouge Park Alliance.
"This is clearly not something that has come out of the blue," Mr. Moola said. "There's been a long effort by all levels of government, including provincial and municipal representation, to try to get a national park in the Rouge and I'm quite happy to see that the federal government has taken their recommendation seriously and have now proposed it in their platform."
Mr. Moola said park attendance across the country has dropped in the past five years - by 5 per cent nationally, 10 per cent in Ontario and Quebec, and 18 per cent in Atlantic Canada - partly because many are too far away.
"This would be the first national park that is accessible for the price of a transit token and that's really unique," he said.
National-park status would also make it virtually impossible for the land to be sold for development, which Mr. De Baeremaeker said would ensure the park for future generations.
Ron Dewell, acting general manager of the Rouge Park Alliance, said he hopes to see a proposed timeline for the national-park designation.
"Right now, we have very few details, but we've always believed this area needed the national-park designation and so we're excited and prepared to work with Parks Canada," he said.
With a report from Sunny Dhillon in Vancouver
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