Column: Province Needed to Help Create New Park in Oak Ridges Moraine

Published in the Toronto Star: March 7, 2018

By Maria Augimeri, Steve Pellegrini, Wayne Emmerson and Glenn De Baeremaeker

Nearly 20 years ago, the Ontario Government took a profound step in recognizing the critical importance of the Oak Ridges Moraine to the long-term health and well-being of the GTA, its communities and its residents. The decision to protect the moraine and carefully manage future development was a milestone in the GTA’s growth, and a stepping stone to the even-more ambitious Greenbelt Plan.

The protection of the moraine occurred under a Conservative government; the Greenbelt was implemented by the Liberals; and both initiatives were supported by the NDP. This is truly a non-partisan issue.

Together, the results of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Greenbelt Plan were transformative: the creation of a contiguous, protected landscape linking the environmental treasures and agricultural countryside of the GTA, and recognizing the importance of ensuring clean water, healthy forests and wildlife habitat for the benefit of millions of southern Ontario residents.

owl in tree

Protecting the moraine was a landmark achievement, but it asks another important question: is protection alone enough? Much of the moraine has been transformed by generations of human activity, including farming, industry and the growth of our towns and cities. This includes many protected areas that are no longer able to perform important ecological functions, such as recharging our aquifers and providing sustainable habitat for endangered and threatened wildlife.

From the outset, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan recognized the importance of not just “maintaining” but also “improving or restoring” the ecological functions of the moraine, as well as creating new opportunities for public recreational access. The Conservation Authorities Moraine Coalition’s 2015 report card identified the need for public authorities to take action to achieve these objectives. Such opportunities have been few and far between.

That’s why there is growing excitement about a proposal to create a new, publicly accessible green space in the heart of the moraine: the East Humber Headwaters Park. The property, over 500 acres (207 hectares) of largely vacant land in York Region, spans the entire width of a narrow corridor of the protected moraine area between King City and Richmond Hill.

The property is uniquely important: it provides an unbroken link between the east and western ends of the moraine, and includes the headwaters of the East Humber River. The vision for the proposed park includes restoring much of the landscape back to natural moraine habitat, allowing it to again provide critical ecological functions as a headwaters area.

headwaters of East Humber River

The proposed East Humber Headwaters Park is a “can’t miss” opportunity to create a landmark public space for millions of GTA residents. That’s why we — the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, the Township of King, the Regional Municipality of York, and the City of Toronto — have passed resolutions strongly supporting the project. The idea has also been embraced by local groups like Concerned Citizens of King Township and Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM), as well as provincial organizations including Ontario Nature, EcoSpark and Earthroots.

However, our efforts alone aren’t enough. We need the Ontario Government’s support for this park to become a reality. The land is privately owned, having been in the same family for nearly 80 years. The landowner is willing to work with the provincial government to exchange the property for less ecologically sensitive development land outside of the moraine and owned by the province.

whitetail deer

It’s very similar to the proven approach used to create important public spaces like the Oak Ridges Corridor Conservation Reserve, the Rouge National Urban Park, the Brick Works, and Bronte Provincial Park.

Opportunities like this are rare, and often fleeting. As the GTA’s population continues to grow and expand, it is vital that we seize the chance to create outstanding public spaces for all to enjoy.

We urge the Ontario Government to heed the tremendous opportunity presented by the East Humber Headwaters Park and join with us to enhance the Oak Ridges Moraine and make this landmark public space a reality.

Maria Augimeri is chair, Toronto and Region Conservation; Steve Pellegrini is mayor, Township of King; Wayne Emmerson is chairman and CEO, The Regional Municipality of York; Glenn De Baeremaeker is deputy mayor, City of Toronto and executive board member, Toronto and Region Conservation.