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Jim Robb, walking through Toronto’s Rouge Park in November, says the park tours that he – as manager of Friends of the Rouge Watershed – leads school children on may be the only exposure to real nature they have all year.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Dave Pearce stands atop a steeply eroding slope in farthest-east Toronto. Dozens of metres below, the Rouge River sweeps west through the sedimentary hills before continuing south to Lake Ontario.

The forest conservationist with the Wildlands League takes in the scene of water, rocks, trees and unobstructed sky. It's a view not normally enjoyed in a city. He sees the deep slice of green as an invaluable part of a growing region.

"Our urban and new Canadians are increasingly separated from the natural world," he says. "This valley is easy and affordable to get to. It can be further restored and protected to be an entry point to show people what nature can be in Canada."

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He's talking about Rouge Park, a 40-square-kilometre swath of forested valleys and farmland at the eastern ends of Scarborough and Markham. The proposal is for the province to transfer ownership of it to the federal government so it can add another 10 square kilometres, linking it to the Oak Ridges Moraine and creating Canada's first national, urban park.

The plan dates to 2011, but its fate is now in question as the federal and provincial governments entrench competing views of conservation. The province says the federal government would not adequately protect the land, water, flora and fauna. Ottawa argues the level of protection the province wants is impossible near a city.

Now, people such as Mr. Pearce, who cheered when the federal government proposed a national park for the GTA, are actively fighting it.

The crux of the issue is that the Rouge would not be just another national park, but instead a "national, urban park," a whole new classification. Existing national parks are protected by the mandate to "maintain or improve ecological integrity." Bill C-40, the classification's new legislation, says only that management must "take into consideration the protection of [the park's] natural ecosystems."

Last month, Ontario Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid sent a third letter to federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, demanding Parks Canada better protect the "ecological integrity" of the future park.

Ms. Aglukkaq has said prioritizing ecological integrity is "simply unachievable in an urban setting," arguing it would lead to the eviction of farmers (more than half the proposed park is agricultural). Conservative MP Peter Kent told Parliament that prioritizing ecological integrity would mean letting wildfires, pest outbreaks and erosion proceed unchecked.

This impasse – between those who see the Rouge as an intact natural refuge between slabs of urban sprawl and those who point out that you can't have a standard national park encompassing two 400-series highways – threatens to derail the country's first attempt to bring national parks and large cities together.

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The province is still the major player in the valley. It created Rouge Park in 1990 and has steadily enlarged it, while establishing a suite of management plans – guidelines for permitted activities and development.

Last January, when the province agreed to transfer ownership of Rouge Park, it stipulated Parks Canada would have to "meet or exceed" the ecological protection the province had already put in place. Mr. Duguid says that hasn't happened yet.

Mr. Pearce supports the province, a view apparently shared by all the two-dozen people – including conservationists, farmers and two federal NDP MPs – accompanying him on a late-November tour of the proposed park. It started at the 68-hectare Rouge Marsh beside Lake Ontario, where two lonely fishermen sheltered from wet snow under the Waterfront Trail's pedestrian bridge. The school bus then trundled through wooded river valleys south of Steeles Avenue before traversing farmland on the way north to where the proposed park would dead-end at a bank of suburban houses at Stouffville.

The federal lands on the table are almost entirely farmland, meaning without the provincial lands, it's inconceivable the initiative will proceed.

Nonetheless, on Nov. 5, the Conservative MPs on the environment and sustainable development committee voted down all 18 amendments the opposition had proposed.

Parks Canada spokesperson Natalie Fay argues that Bill C-40 and a commitment of $147.3-million over 10 years will improve overall protection by banning mining, raising fines for poaching and improving enforcement. "Parks Canada remains hopeful that, through ongoing discussions, Ontario will agree to transfer its lands," she told The Globe and Mail.

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So far, Mr. Duguid is holding firm. "Ecological integrity is crucial. Our concern is how these lands are passed on to future generations. I can't, in good faith, recommend a transfer until they address the concerns ignored at the parliamentary committee."

With Canada's first national, urban park hanging in the balance, Mr. Duguid suggests Ontario holds the cards.

"Time is on our side. We are looking to the federal government to change its mind. If not, maybe a future government will be able to work in partnership with us."

It's the sort of long view that makes conservationists such as Jim Robb optimistic. The manager of Friends of the Rouge Watershed is leading the school-bus tour and wraps it up in a two-room schoolhouse near the Toronto Zoo. He shows off a collection of hides and stuffed animals – including an otter, fox, hawk, heron, owl and a marten – who sample the still-living wildlife outside. The schoolhouse hosts most of the 16,000 students that visit the Rouge Valley on day trips annually.

About 25 of those children are outside now, their backpacks still inside on the chairs. Mr. Robb says today is the only exposure to nature many of the students will get in a year.

Some observers use the term "nature deficit disorder" to describe a growing affliction among urban kids. Mr. Robb says in the 25-plus years he's been introducing people to the Rouge Valley he's witnessed a growing disassociation between kids and the outdoor world.

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The Rouge, he says, is perfectly placed to help bridge that gap. "Kids can get here on public transit," he says. "And when they do, we can show them a good-news story about healing and setting the balance back right."

Mr. Robb sees the current impasse being a case of the federal government prioritizing "three or four dozen people who are leasing farmland" in the proposed park's northern reaches.

Though he'd like to see some farmland eventually restored to nature, he knows farming isn't going away and says a balance can be achieved that protects both ecology and agriculture.

"The work has already been done. The federal bill undermines 25 years of consultation, laws and science," says Mr. Robb.

"To say the minister has to 'take nature into consideration' gives it no legal value. That's the standard for everywhere," says Mr. Robb. "In a park, we need to do better."

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