By John Bacher
Tragically few seem to appreciate the wonders of our relatively well ecologically restored landscape around the eastern edge of Lake Ontario where most of the province’s population lives.
In the 1950s, part of what is now the core of Ontario’s Greenbelt, the Oak Ridges Moraine, was a sand blow desert, bereft of trees. The Niagara Escarpment was a naked rock pile. Development even crowded into stream flood plains, resulting in eighty seven deaths when Hurricane Hazel hit six decades ago.
One of those responsible for the green transformation with its significant increase in forest cover even in the heavily urbanized Don watershed was the visionary ecologist, Charles Sauriol. An ignored prophet before Hurricane Hazel, he then rescued river valleys and the Niagara Escarpment with the help of conservation authorities and his Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Part of the ecological recovery of our region can be seen in the return of species that had vanished because of human abuse of the environment. Sauriol in his lifetime was happy to see the return of one-the Belted Kingfisher, which he compared to meeting a long lost friend. Since his death in 1995 we have seen the return of more species such as beaver, mink and white tailed deer.
In virtually all parts of our homeland, significant forests with a growing coverage across the landscape that has been key to ecological recovery across the GTA/Hamilton/ Niagara area, is well protected. All of the eastern Lake Ontario watersheds have strong tree bylaws modelled on those of Halton Region. These impose significant fines on landowners who illegal cut down trees without a permit. Most of the significant forests of more than 10 acres are in the ownership of public agencies, or various conservationist landowners, such as the Bruce Trail Conservancy.
The recovery of what is commonly called “the Golden Horseshoe” is however, imperilled and fragile. Climate change, which threatens to make cities horrific heat islands and dry up summer streams, requires more forest cover.
What is most ominous is that there are serious threats to our existing forests. This is no more obvious than tthe nearly 100 acre (99.7 to be exact), David Dunlap Forest in Richmond Hill. It was gradually reforested from 1938 to 1980 to provide a forested buffer against noise and light pollution for the University of Toronto’s David Dunlap Observatory.
It is proposed to remove 44.2 acres of the existing David Dunlap Forest block for residential development through zoning changes now being reviewed by the Ontario Municipal Board. (OMB) If approved, this would degrade and fragment one of the biggest remaining forest blocks on a major branch of the Don River, German Mills Creek. It would dump more water during precipitation events on the Don River, which in 2013 experienced massive flooding that shut down GO train service.
Like most of the Greater Toronto Area’s existing forests, that of David Dunlap was consciously created for conservationist reasons. Its donor to the University of Toronto, Jessie Dunlap, was a patron of Men of the Trees. This organization composed largely of World War One Army veterans lobbied successfully for the creation of conservation authorities to reforest southern Ontario. Another donor, astronomer Clarence Chant worked closely with conservation authorities to reforest the site as part of the goals of the Don Watershed plan.
Like other large blocks of restored forests the David Dunlap Forest provides significant wildlife habitat. It supports deer herds and resident coyotes. It is one of the few places in the
Toronto region where a boreal forest species, which needs large habitat blocks, the Red Breasted Nuthatch, has breeding habitat. It is a wintering area for the spectacular Barred Owl.
The provincial government can now rescue the David Dunlap Forest at the stroke of a pen through an instrument of the Planning Act known as a Ministerial Zoning Order.
This should be done promptly rather than taking a sanctimonious Pontius Pilate washing of hands attitude that it is before the OMB. Eventually the forest should be publicly purchased as a form of green infrastructure. This will help avoid higher costs such as paying for flooded out bridges, roads and sewers in the future.
John Bacher is a veteran conservationist in Niagara, Ontario and long-time member of the citizen group, Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. A past contributor of posts to Niagara At Large, his most recent book is called ‘Two Billion Trees and Counting – The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz’,
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