The South March Highlands - Kanata’s Outdoor Wonderland

I want to preface this by stating that I am a hiker and mountain biker, as well as a cross-country skier, but primarily I am an environmentalist.

On November 10, 2000 the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton announced the purchase of 556 acres of the South March Highlands for $1.6 million at the urging of Kanata Regional councilor Alex Munter who has stated “his biggest achievement would be putting South March Highland into public ownership to keep it protected.“

My attempt to find anything about the plans for the South March Highlands on the City of Ottawa website have been unsuccessful. All I could find were references to the fact that a plan should be drawn up.

However my own sources have confirmed that the process has begun with the city meeting with stakeholders and conducting another environmental assessment on the lands. I understand public meetings will be announced shortly.

Having heard rumours that some “environmentalists” wanted to restrict public access and trails to the periphery of the area I contacted the Kanata Environmental Network who provided this response:

“KEN has a representative attending the City meetings concerning the South March Highlands. The periphery approach is consistent with the environmental studies that Dan Brunton did over 20 years ago. There will be a new environmental assessment done in the next year and it may recommend keeping all human traffic on the edges. KEN is in favour of this approach. There is no other way to protect the heronry and multiple rare plant species in the highlands. KEN's stance reflects Brunton's recommendations until an update becomes available.”

This will come as a shock to the local community associations and activists who used Dan Brunton’s research in their fight to save the adjoining KNL lands from development and protect the trail network. They obviously have a different interpretation of Brunton’s position.

The fact is that this is urban parkland, not wilderness. It is surrounded by roads and the southern boundary is going to be a major roadway - Terry Fox Drive. Treating this land as wilderness with no interior public access simply does not make sense. One only needs to look at the response to KNL’s development proposals to know the public wants access to these lands.

And of course the trails are there and have existed for years and are being used by residents from all over Ottawa.

People can be a great threat to the environment, the biggest impact being from development - bulldozing and paving it over, blasting and replacing forests and meadows with parking lots and buildings.

On the other hand people hiking responsibly through the forest has no greater impact than deer or bears running through the forest, particularly when they are on a controlled trail system. The same applies to mountain biking where the scientific evidence indicates that hikers and mountain bikers and hikers have equivalent impacts on trails. See for example the reviews done by the International Mountain Bicycling Association and the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

The majority of outdoorspersons considers themselves to be, and indeed are, environmentalists. The best way to raise environmental awareness is by getting people out into the environment, enjoying it and learning of it’s importance and the need to protect it. That is where the environmentalists that we need to fight the real threats to the environment - development and habitat destruction, are born.

Getting people out into the environment, onto the lakes and rivers and into the forests builds healthy lifestyles, and healthy lifestyles improve our health and reduces our health care costs. This is important at a time when obesity, and childhood obesity in particular, is at epidemic levels. We need natural spaces and trails to teach our children the benefits and enjoyment that can be had in the great outdoors. Kanata is fortunate that we have a population that celebrates healthy lifestyles and rises up to challenge those that want to take our natural spaces and trails away from us.

Young people need the type of challenges the outdoors can provide as an alternative to spending their time a sedentary lifestyle centered on electronic devices, or other even worse but seemingly exciting activities, like gangs and drugs. Youth can be attracted to these things by the very risks we want to protect them from. Outdoors activities such as rock climbing and mountain biking can provide exciting healthy risks that build character and a healthy body.

The South March Highlands is an ideal location for the people of Kanata, young and old, to discover and enjoy a healthy outdoor lifestyle.

Fortunately we already have an environmentally friendly trail system in the South March Highlands, with natural, rugged, single track trails that have minimal environmental impact. These are the types of trails that hikers and mountain bikers love. The trail system is currently unofficially maintained by the Ottawa Mountain Bike Association according to the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) sustainable trail building standards which keeps the trails as natural as possible with some rock armouring used to raise low wet areas and some bridges over wet areas.

So what should the South March Highlands Management Plan propose for the existing trail system.

The trail system should be reviewed in light of the findings of the new environmental assessment, and in particular the identification of environmentally sensitive areas. It should also be reviewed in light of IMBA’s sustainable trail standards. This review would determine if any trail sections need to be rebuilt, closed or re-routed, as well as identifying possible additional trail routes.

Existing and new trails should be designed and maintained in as natural a state as possible, no widening, flattening, or paving should be allowed.

The South March Highlands belongs to all of us. The trails should be open to all users, with the exception of motorized vehicles, including snowmobiles.

In the summer we already have seen that the trails function exceedingly well as shared trails and they have the potential to become a model shared use trail system.

In the winter these rugged trails are ideal for snowshoeing, as well as mountain biking. Cross country skiers should also be welcome but these natural trails should not be altered into wide flat ski trails. There are lots of good wide flat ski trails available for skiing. These trails provide an excellent alternative for other trail users to avoid conflicts with skiers on the cross country ski trails.

The final, but perhaps most important part of the plan, should be public education on environmentally friendly and sustainable trail use, including respect for other trail users - share the trail. The education campaign should stress that trail users should stay on the designated trails. As well it should encourage trail users to avoid wet muddy trails but advise them to use the centre of the trail, not go alongside and widen it, if they do need to go through wet muddy sections. A good place to start with trail education are the IMBA Rules of the Trail

The residents of Kanata fought a valiant fight to try to protect the environmental lands and trail system within the KNL development lands, We still have the South March Highlands. It is time to build a plan that allows us to enjoy this environmental jewel in a responsible way that gets more people out enjoying the great outdoors and protects the environment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a member of the South March Highlands/conservation forest planning group, I do not object to much that is written here -- nor do I have the impression that others in the group particularly object.

My main concern is the suggestion of new trails: there is an extensive network now and, even on a sunny afternoon when the car park at K2 is full, the existing trails are not crowded (standing aside for three bikers to pass does not happen more than once or twice per hour). The advantage to the surrounding natural environment is that the bikers are going to fast/purposefully to stray off the track. The 'Roman' roads built by the OMBA in the muddy spots on the trail is a good solution, accoding to Brunton, and far better than making new trails to avoid the mud. Closing the trails during the spring thaw I think would be a good idea. At times, I have come across snakes and frogs on the pathways that have been flattened by a biker -- no doubt the crows are grateful.

I would suggest that OMBA membership should be required of bikers, and that members educate new members in the importance of staying on the existing pathways. They might even find extra people willing to do the maintenance/building of the 'Roman' raods.