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stepping up the battle for trails

I share the columnist's (see below) angst about some of the trail closures in Cootes Paradise and the observation that the impacts of walking on habitat are less damaging than driving. Nevertheless, I can appreciate that some of the trails can and should be closed to preserve sensitive habitat.

It is because Cootes is surrounded by a city that the impacts of both cars and yes, even feet, can cumulatively degrade the integrity of this nature sanctuary.

Blocking trails with bushes generally seems to occur on "unofficial" trails, though I have previously expressed my concern with closing trails that once provided access through Cootes to hook up with the Spencer Creek Trail in Dundas. The utility of a trail as a path to someplace, rather than just a recreational loop, means a lot to me, and I have hoped the RBG would reconsider the trails layout with this in mind.
Again, with so many people accessing Cootes, on foot and on mountain-bikes, the threats to the lands are very real. Disturbing wildlife can result in the loss of that wildlife from the area. Loving Cootes too much has the unintended consequence of damaging the place we love.
What I would prefer is a holistic, big-picture accounting of the ways we can expand nature, to remove the real damage caused by development and roads, and therefore make some of these trails viable again in an enlarged habitat. I refer to the cornerstone of this blog's rationale, that conservation isn't enough, we need restoration!

I keep harping on this, but the presence of highway 403 in the east, and Cootes Drive in the west of Cootes pose a huge barrier to ecological integrity, in terms of road noise that carries throughout the entire marsh and diminishes the peacefulness of the area, and especially Cootes Drive, where at risk species and their less threatened neighbours end up as road kill, and animal movement is restricted and dangerous, all in the filled-in, paved-over, former-marsh that extended into the east end of Dundas.
I know that the columnist and I would agree that Cootes is worthy of protection, and enhancement, and that Hamilton is fortunate to have this place in our midst.

Barred from paradise
Changing and closing ancient trails disrupts the natural beauty of RBG lands

The Hamilton Spectator

(Jul 16, 2010) Cootes Paradise is essentially wild and untouched. This is its beauty and importance to us. It does not require the strict intervention and control the Royal Botanical Gardens employs to manage its splendid tulip and rose gardens. In managing Cootes, "less is more."
Although Cootes Paradise has experienced damage by carp, gypsy moths and garlic mustard, the most threatening foreign invasion into this natural area is now the RBG's new and unnatural management style.
Its current practice of planting trees and bramble bushes on established trails and deliberately littering paths with fallen branches is disruptive to the natural order. It is also negligent because someone could get hurt.
The RBG claim that habitat restoration is its goal, but something beautifully life-enhancing is being threatened with extinction. The traditional trails they are now terminating have been a consistent, unspoiled part of our heritage for two centuries. Foxes, deer and other fellow creatures share with us these gentle ways through the woods.
I have walked the trails around Cootes Paradise for more than 50 years. They have changed very little in that time. Unfortunately, RBG management seems oblivious to the fact that these thin unobtrusive trails are as natural as birds' nests.
To imply these narrow ribbons of packed earth interfere with wildlife is nonsense. Walking the trails around Cootes Paradise does less harm to the woods and marshland than driving a car through Westdale or along Highway 403.
Restrictive fences have recently appeared on the trail to Sassafras Point. They are blights on the wild landscape and are worse eyesores than the inevitable graffiti that will soon cover them. We go to the woods to escape these oppressive phenomena.
The only thing threatened by people walking Cootes's trails is the RBG's experiment in manipulation and control. To remain natural, Cootes Paradise does not need censorship inspired by someone's notion of being a wildlife "expert" (which really is nothing more than personal taste and self-assertion). Closing harmless trails is mean-spirited and ignores the untamed poetry of this special place we need access to.
The RBG claims $20,000 was spent on the trail to Sassafras Point, but the trail itself is exactly as it was before the intervention. The only change is the introduction of oppressive littering, plantings, signs and fences designed to prevent people from comfortably walking alternate ancient paths. Dead trees that were favourite roosting places for hawks and bald eagles have been cut or burned down. RBG efforts would have been better spent restoring the friendly lookout at Kingfisher Point that has fallen into disrepair.
It is a mistake to convert Cootes Paradise into a controlled laboratory experiment. Any scientific knowledge brought to this project is for manipulation, control and transformation rather than an understanding based on acceptance and love.
To understand nature you must see and feel you are part of it. The RBG, with its keep out attitude, offers us the lesson that humans are different from and not part of nature. This is both foolish and false.
I have always loved Cootes Paradise. For those of us who know it, it's among the best places on earth. People can go there and leave it exactly as they found it (except maybe when they're moved to clean up after careless litterers).
These trail closures make RBG management seem similar to those who visit Cootes Paradise to break beer bottles or litter coffee cups. They both wreck it for those who go there to be one with nature. Vandals in the guise of authority are more dangerous than those who litter and break bottles simply because the latter are recognized as "illegal." The RBG destruction defines itself as "legal" and I don't like it.
There must remain places close to heavily populated areas where people can feel a reverence and awe at being an earthling alive on this beautiful earth. It must remain open to us to be free to retreat from man-made rules and tyrannical constructions that belong with cars, pavement and the lack of respect for the environment that we go to the woods to escape.
The RBG has entertained the idea of building a bridge between Princess Point and Sassafras Point (a sure
sign they are unfit to manage this precious land). The point of a point is that it is a point, in isolation. Visitors hike through the woods for half an hour to be at Sassafras Point. Parking their cars at Princess Point, crossing a bridge and being there in half a minute will not give them time to feel the healthy transformation Cootes Paradise can bring to them.
I protest the way the RBG management is now making its presence known in Cootes Paradise. They should direct their efforts to their gardens and parking lots and leave the natural areas alone.
Bob Yates is an artist and writer. He lives in Hamilton's Westdale neighbourhood.


Unknown said…
I applaud your level-headed response to Yates' article about trail closures. Unfortunately, most people just don't realize the incredible amount of stress that a 500 000+ population city exerts on one of its main natural treasures!
As many environmental biologists know well, even the most careful hiker leaves inescapable traces of his/her journey. Suppose you are a species of bird which only nests in undisturbed forests - the presence of even one daily hiker may turn you away from nesting. Suppose that you are a rare wildflower growing in a very specific stand of trees - it may only take one careless bushwhacker to crush half the local population and compact the soil, making it difficult to re-grow. Suppose you are the tiny seeds of the very invasive garlic mustard. It only takes one walk in the woods to disperse you all over the forest, where you may fight against and out-compete the native plants. We are almost never aware of the fact that we are giants to a great many organisms - and just as a single elephant could well ruin your own house and yard, so too can a single human ruin the habitat of many plants, animals and fungi. If we are to leave any legacy for our children, there have to be limits set somewhere!
Anonymous said…
The plants and animals of Cootes Paradise that RBG scientists are trying to preserve have survived up to now alongside heritage trails people have walked for generations. The reason is because this area has remained wild and free from city development. There is no reason this situation cannot continue.

It is hubris for RBG scientists to believe they are in control and nature can survive only under their guidance. They certainly cannot claim credit for bald eagles coming to Cootes Pardise. In recent years bald eagles have appeared in scores of communities all across southern Ontario.

The RBG management claim to have transformed Cootes Paradise from a “near lifeless body of water to a vibrant spawning ground.” It is as though they had never visited Cootes Paradise. The water boiled with life when the carp spawned, packed in there as thick as cans of sardines. I know it was not an ideal situation (although I found it awesome and a potential candidate for the 8th Wonder Of The World... and I am shocked the nature experts do not even recognize it as life let alone give it a token nod of wonder). I happen to approve of the carp control in Cootes but I doubt if the bald eagles would. The RBG’s belief in what constitutes life is quite different from Nature’s.

In their attempts to provide what they believe is a pure antiseptic environment for bald eagles, the RBG should know that wariness of humans is not particular to bald eagles but is shared by all birds (save chickadees and nuthatches). And whether the scientists like it or not, a bald eagle was recently sighted in a large backyard tree in a residential area between Aberdeen and the south escarpment.

After the oil spill in the Gulf and the predictable flooding of the Red Hill Expressway (both under the guidance of scientific “experts”), we all should be wary of the claims of self-proclaimed experts. We do seem to agree Cootes Paradise should remain wild and natural, but we probably disagree as to what this really means. I claim simply walking the ancient trails is as natural for humans as it is for deer. And just as harmless. I doubt if the RBG want to restore things to its natural habitat before the early settlers because this would necessitate the reintroduction of black bears and rattlesnakes. It is an arbitrary decision to determine what Cootes Paradise should be.

As a Boy Scout in the 1950s I helped plant trees in cleared land on the north shore of Cootes Paradise and have visited Cootes for peace and sanctuary all my life. I feel an ownership of the place (in the same sense that Canada is my country). This is where I belong. It is a question of life and the spirit of being an earthling. To be denied access to this sacred place is the equivalent of foreign forces invading my homeland to impose dictatorial rules. To me and a few others it is a form of religious persecution.

I will continue to protest RBG trail closures because I know it is both wrong and wrong-headed.
Randy said…
whatwhatwhat - you are missing the point! First, you are not being "denied access" but instead being asked to accept limits on access. Accepting limits in order to preserve other life forms, which, as David point out, are susceptible to even moderate disruption from our human presence.
Your point about the carp is like saying "Kentucky bluegrass is life, therefore I don't mind it replacing a forest."
The carp invaded then dominated the marsh, thus restricting biodiversity by churning the bottom of the marsh so plants couldn't grow, which meant other species of fish couldn't reproduce...well, you end up with a monoculture of carp, and no native species. How is that healthy?
I respect your concern for Cootes, but can you take a step back (literally and metaphorically) to see the big picture?
Anonymous said…
It’s a good thing that there seems to be some attempt at an exchange of ideas here. What it all comes down to is we are fellow citizens occupying this corner of the earth and we are concerned with trying to determine the best things we can do while we are here.

I’m afraid Randy has "missed the point" about my carp comments (above). He should reread them, and if he still wants to stick to his inappropriate metaphor he could say I said something like, “Kentucky bluegrass is life. So is a forest. I recognize (unlike others) that Kentucky bluegrass is awesome but I prefer a forest.”

Let’s forget the metaphors and talk about specifics. First, access to Cootes Paradise. Then, species suddenly endangered by humans who walk trails they have walked for generations.

Where I walk most often is the area of Cootes between Sassafras Point and the boardwalk behind McMaster. The complete length of what was (until a few weeks ago) the South Shore Trail often took over an hour, following the shoreline, winding through various coves. Occasionally I would encounter a bird-watcher with binoculars or a camera, or a family on a nature hike, but the vast majority of times I would meet with no-one else on that trail. I am sure that the 500 000+ that David is worried about are (for better or worse) indifferent to the sorrows and joys of Cootes Paradise.

Now RBG management has shut down almost all the trails on the south shore. After doing so, the CEO of the RBG claims that 50 per cent of the shoreline of Cootes is now accessible to visitors. This is blatantly untrue. Maybe 10 or 20 feet of shoreline at the tip of Sassafras Point is accessible under the new restrictions. From there the trail goes through the woods (with all access to trails leading to the shoreline prohibited) to the gravel laneway that leads to behind McMaster. This well-used ‘trail’ is frequented by school classes, joggers, many walkers, the occasional cyclist or RBG pick-up truck. But every other small dirt trail to the points overlooking Cootes is now closed.

After Sassafras Point, the next opportunity to be at water’s edge is at the boardwalk behind McMaster. It overlooks not the larger Cootes but one of its coves, and to get there is achieved only after walking across the pavement and parking lots behind McMaster (for a distance many times the distance you can walk on the waterfront of the south shore). A continuous walk through the woods between these two access points is impossible. Randy may be satisfied with walks of this nature but to me this is “access denied”. It is not a mere “limit on access”. It is most definitely and simply “access denied”.

*** Sorry, I’m too long-winded…
I will have to start a second blog comment…
Anonymous said…

The reason for this denial (trail closures) is the threat to certain species. I think I have made clear my wariness of experts. I do not believe their assertions (nor the echoes of Randy and David) that walking the trails endangers the natural life. This is a clash of two different belief systems. I would like to know the specific species of animals or plants that can live only two or three inches from the well-worn paths we have inherited from our ancestors --- the ones that suddenly run the risk of extinction if humans continue to walk where humans have walked for centuries. If there are such species, why not transplant the vegetation to place a little further away from the path? I’m sure the birds and animals will move themselves, if they haven’t already.

The paths that concern us here actually occupy a very small fraction of far less than one per cent of the land around them. Nothing is threatened. Nature is not that fragile unless it is outright attacked. This is not the case at Cootes. There is plenty of room for a natural habitat and modest old pathways through it. [Although right now, as we speak, undesirable purple loosestrife is establishing itself in the coves of Cootes. And true, it is highly likely that it is indeed the result of human presence (specifically, the contaminated RBG scientists doing their restoration plantings).]

Some things can’t be helped. One is that we are humans. That is no reason to divorce ourselves in theory and practice from being and living in harmony in our environment with our fellow creatures.

Randy has suggested I step back and see the big picture. If we step further back we will see an even bigger picture. It shouldn’t be too hard for us to imagine that it might be very easy for someone to believe that the world would be a better place (with a more natural habitat) without humans at all. Humans have a tendency to bugger things up. Especially when they take the godlike position of believing the world is theirs to control and dictate to and do with what they like. But I prefer the life of an earthling and believe in a paradigm shift probably very similar to the one called for at the top of this blog. Mine would include humans as an integral part of the mix.

As far as I can tell, our hopes for the permanent outward appearance and health of Cootes Paradise are very similar. There is one small difference: I want to see it and be in it and be part of it, and others want to stand back and be peripheral. No problem. That is likely the way it will be.

P.S. I must express my pleasure and surprise at your quoting Thoreau (to the right of this column). Pleasure because he is one of my mentors. Surprise because he supports my position perfectly whereas you don't. His writing was not limited to humankind’s relationship to Nature but also had to do with our relationship to each other (they are probably one and the same). He dealt admirably with what to do when one group of humans take a godlike position of telling others what to do and where they can go when they are harming nothing and no-one (“Civil Disobedience”). Good choice, Thoreau. He’s a good man for us all to learn from.
Anonymous said…
Here's another voice that should be heard. It is a letter to the editor in response to the column that prompted this blog:

July 23, 2010
The Hamilton Spectator

Gardens 'experts' want 'own private preserve'

Re: 'Barred from paradise; Changing and closing ancient trails disrupts the natural beauty of RBG lands' (Opinion, July 16)

As a very frequent walker in the RBG, I, too, am appalled and angry at the actions of the Gardens' management. The more interesting trails are now closed in both Cootes Paradise and the Unsworth area.

In seven years of walking, I have witnessed surprisingly little evidence of human abuse. The traditional trails are very unobtrusive and provide the public with the only means of enjoying the true beauty of this wonderful property.

I have tried on several occasions to obtain reasonable answers from the top management on down. None of their responses made sense to me.

My impression is that the staff of the Gardens, and particularly the "experts," have decided this should be their own private preserve. I am completely in favour of conservation and the encouragement of wildlife habitat. However, I know that the Gardens can do this without closing off the old trails.

I agree with the writer when he says that the Gardens' money would be better spent improving the trails rather than closing them down.

I would like to see more support from others to try and change this management's arrogant ideas of how to run a public area. Better still, I would like to see a change in management.

John MacNabb
Anonymous said…
I believe my new blog is compatible with both preserving and restoring Cootes Paradise.

Check it out:

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