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Raping Mother Earth: Lessons in Abysmal Municipal Leadership

July 25, 2010

Update February 9, 2011: Cutting has begun by heavy machinery. Protestors, including Algonguin First Nations people, have shown up on several occasions. Despite claims that the area to be clear cut and then blasted is home to archaeological artifacts, not to mention unique old forest growth and topography, the developers and Ottawa City Council have ignored these calls.

I’ve lived in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, Ontario, since 2000. Ottawa has been ranked as the best city in which to live in the country, and I can see why: big city amenities in a population of 900,000; friendly people; clean air; a great public transit system; summer-long music festivals and cultural events; and an abundance of recreational activities. The latter is what has really appealed to me.

I’ve loved cycling on the hundreds of kilometers around the city, and snowshoeing on them during the winter. My wife, Sue, and I enjoy taking our Lab, Max, on walks along the trails near our home. And it’s closest to home where this post focuses.

We live in a community called Kanata, which was its own city until amalgamation sucked us into the Ottawa vortex along with a dozen other small municipalities in 2001. With a highly educated population of some 75,000, and a contingent of high-tech companies, Kanata’s a pretty decent place in which to live, even if it is growing very quickly. Its fantastic trails serve as a magnet for mountain bikers from throughout Eastern Ontario.

(Jim walking in the woods)

These trails are especially rugged in some places, characterized by Pre-Cambrian rock. Outcrops abound in forests populated with a wide variety of hardwoods and softwoods (eg, butternuts, maples, oaks, beech, spruce, cedar), diverse plant species, rare flowers, migratory birds, deer, fox and some endangered species.

It is indeed a treat to walk, jog or cycle along the trails, which are just minutes from my house. I’ve read that that these woods, part of the South March Highlands, are perhaps the most unique in North America within a municipality. The Sierra Club of Canada has been strongly advocating for the protection of the Highlands.

Now here’s the problem.

Long ago in 1981, 20 years before amalgamation, developers acquired this area for future development. People forgot about it. Fast forward to today, where Kanata has grown so quickly that developers can’t find land fast enough to plunk down housing. Urbandale and Richcraft, which own the land through their partnership company KNL Development Ltd., plan to develop almost 200 hectares in the Highlands over the coming years, starting with 20 hectares in July, 2010.

KNL Development Ltd. is within its legal rights to develop the entire area, though in my opinion it demonstrates incredibly bad environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility.
This is, as I noted above, a very rocky area. Not far from my home, another major developer spent over a year blasting out a hillside to make room for housing, which is finally starting to go up. What had been a pretty forested hillside is now a moonscape, providing a view that now goes for miles.

I well recall hearing the blasting whistle in the distance, accompanied by the dull thud of repeated explosions. This went on for a year. Pity the homeowners who live across the street. The mammoth boulders produced by the blasting were then ground down on site to yield gravel for construction. The following photos are recent ones I took to illustrate this moonscape. You can see a few of the remaining gravel piles. Remember, two years ago this was forested hillside.

It’s not as much housing development that annoys me, but the lack of foresight and vision by developers and the City of Ottawa. In other words, what’s missing is forward thinking leadership.

In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, KNL spokesperson Mary Jarvis stated that clearcutting trees is standard company policy when starting a new subdivision.

Where’s the vision? Where’s the imagination? Where’s the corporate soul?

Since first writing this post last June 2010, there were some positive developments. My municipal councilor has worked very hard at maximizing the amount of land that can be saved, in particular in the most sensitive areas. The solutions are not as simple as they seem, given that the issue lay dormant for decades, only to be revived when the orange construction fencing starting going up.

The Government of Ontario has proven to be impotent in stepping in to halt the madness. Although it currently lacks the legislation, in 2013 the Province will have added habitat protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wonderful. Three years hence this gorgeous habitat will be unrecognizable–and the developers will be all the richer.

The delay since June to start the cutting and blasting relates more to what’s called a “buffer zone.” This would be a 20-metre (61 feet) wide wooded corridor connecting the Beaverpond Woods (near my home) to the Trillium Woods, which has spectacular biking and hiking trails. But make no mistake, development is coming.

Last June, Sue and I took Max for a walk in the Beaverpond woods and took seveal photos. The same orange fencing is still there, though some of it is now on the ground. It was and still is very striking to see how much fencing, including orange spray paint on trees and rock, had been erected. I still get a sick feeling in my stomach whenever I bike through these woods I’ve enjoyed over the past 10 years.

It’s a race to the bottom when it comes to developers straining for the almighty buck. Once unique, pristine areas are wasted by clearcutting and blasting for the purpose of building housing, they will NEVER return. Gone forever. We will be all the poorer in the long-run.

The main lesson here is that citizens should not depend on developers to do the right thing when it comes to preserving fragile ecosystems; as with any business their primary goal is profit maximization. Instead, citizens must get engaged and directly express their views and aspirations to their elected officials (whether local, state or provincial, or national). Politicians, in turn, must take ownership on behalf of the people who elect them to ensure that a long-term view is taken when it comes to economic development, especially in dealing with the environment and natural resources.

Ottawa, as the capital of Canada, you should be ashamed. You have exemplified the ultimate in myopic, unimaginative leadership.

For my readers across Canada, America, the UK, Europe and East Asia, don’t let this happen to you. Whether you’re a resident of Ottawa, a Canadian living on the other side of the country or a citizen of another country, we all live on a shrinking planet and have a collective duty to care for Mother Earth.

I will keep you all posted on developments as they occur, replete with new photos.

(Jim and Max out for a hike in the South March Highlands)

A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world. (John Le Caré)

Note: All photos taken by J. Taggart and S. Butler.
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