Imagine a time in the future when we live in a scenario that we see so often in science fiction movies…a desolate, burned out earth with no living thing to be found. It’s an image we’ve seen many times in popular movies and TV shows.
Imagine that a staggering amount of all life has perished. Let’s say 70%. That’s well over half! Can you imagine what a world like that would look like?
Well, we won’t have to wait long to experience that first hand . The latest data from some of the world’s top scientists now claim that will be our reality by the year 2020. That’s in 3 years from now.
Take a moment to let that sink in. Imagine what that looks like. For every 100 birds, now there are only 30. Now, take that and multiply that across all species. Of course, nature does not divide evenly, so we will see complete collapse and extinction of some species, and radical depopulation of many others. So, what does this have to do with The Scarborough Bluffs?
Habitat destruction is the leading cause of wildlife deaths worldwide. When you take away land from animals to mine, build shopping malls, parking lots, and even pave beaches and make giant trails….you ultimately sign their death warrant. As our human population grows, we are forced into making more and more of these decisions as to what to do with the remaining land.
Locally, we have the plans for the Scarborough Waterfront Project (SWP) underway, brought to us by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). They have undergone an internal and public process to determine how the Scarborough Shoreline is to be developed. The Wild Bluffs has been part of their planning process as part of their Stakeholder Committee to this project. After careful consideration and consultation with the TRCA over the past few years, we have come to the conclusion that there is no way that we can support this project.
The most controversial part of the SWP involves paving the last natural shoreline in the GTA with a giant revetment wall and armour stone. These are the kind of structures you can see already at the bottom of Meadowcliffe and Fishleigh. They cut off access from the water for humans and animals alike, and deprive nature lovers of experiencing the joys and beauty of a natural shoreline. Since the trail cannot be continuous along the waterfront due to many considerations, including safety issues, land ownership and access points, we feel that there is no reason to pave part of the beach for no reason other than to provide people with easier access to the area.
The beach at East Point is home to a significant population of Bank Swallows, a Provincially and Federally Threatened Species. Swallow populations across Canada have fallen by over 70% since 1970, (does that number sound familiar?), and Bank Swallow numbers have fallen a staggering 98%.
This potentially could mean that the Bluffs are home to one of the only remaining thriving colonies of Bank Swallows in Canada. There are 4 Swallow species that call The Bluffs home, all of them are on the Endangered Species list. While Bank Swallows are aerial insectivores, they have a beach-feeder behaviour that involves them sitting on the beach in intervals to eat insects. You will see little divots left in the sand by their tiny rumps! This behaviour is observable at all times of day when they have the beach to themselves.
The TRCA claims that the Bank Swallows will not be disrupted by 10 years of construction and paving of their beach. They’ve even gone as far to express the opinion that the Swallows would prefer an asphalt surface to their natural beach, as asphalt attracts more insects. I kid you not. That was a real conversation with the person in charge of their “Bank Swallow Recovery Team.” Shameful.
The TRCA further claims that the Bank Swallows will be unaffected because the largest colony is actually above the parking lot at the beach at Bluffer’s Park. The colony is high enough to be free of harassment from human activity, and the swallows there do indeed come down for beach feeding in the evening when the people are leaving. Also, the destruction of three of their smaller colonies by the erosion control project at Meadowcliffe caused many of the swallows to relocate to the parking lot location. The colony sites at East Point are much lower to the beach due to the short height of the cliffs, and in some places, you can literally reach their nesting holes with their hands. How do they plan to protect the vulnerable species by introducing high volumes of human traffic right into their habitat?
One of our concerns as Stakeholders was the significant bat population that can be observed on any warm night around the Bluffs. When we questioned the TRCA about their lack of data collection surrounding the bat populations, we were told that the numbers were insignificant, and that there was “no way” to quantify or accurately observe bat populations. We didn’t take that for an answer, and used our position as Stakeholders to apply pressure to the TRCA to be more accountable, as they did not include any bat species in their species inventory. They finally relented, and called in the Royal Ontario Museum’s Burton Lim, a world class Mammalogist to conduct a study of the local bats.
He discovered that there were great numbers of bats of the in study, and even more impressively, all 8/8 bat species in Ontario could be found in the Bluffs! Three of these species are critically endangered, including the Little Brown Bat. Once again, these species are supposed to be receiving full habitat protection from the Provincial and Federal Governments.
Most shocking, however, is a report published by the TRCA in 2012, entitled “Scarborough Shoreline – Terrestrial Biological Inventory and Assessment”.
This report was generated as a study of the area that is now under the SWP. In the report, several specialists surveyed the habitats, terrain, and wildlife of the area, then put forth a recommendation to the TRCA based on their findings. They made three overall recommendations:
- Protect and Enhance Existing Features – The first priority should be to focus on maintaining conditions that allow existing communities or species of conservation concern to thrive.
- Manage Public Use – Controlling disturbance associated with urbanization and public land use is also a high priority.
- Control Invasive Species – It is essential that well-planned and realistic measures be undertaken to control invasive species.
Further into the document, they provide data maps that explain their findings, as well. These maps include two maps (#7 and 8) that are the Scores for Matrix Influence and Sensitivity to Development for both Flora and Fauna. What these maps show is how sensitive the plants and animal communities are to development. Many of the plants and animals scored very high – Species receives severe negative impact from development related disturbance, Species receives moderately severe negative impact from development related disturbance, and Species receives significant negative impact from development related disturbance.
This means that the TRCA is fully aware that the SWP is a threat to the plant and animal communities that call The Bluffs home. We can’t accept a project that will have “sever negative impact” to our local environment. Also, on map #4, you can see the study area of The Bluffs and brown dots representing animal communities. It is plain to see that the entire ecosystem of The Bluffs is cut-off from any other potential habitat, meaning that the animals simply have no where else to go. If there were habitat corridors up into the Rouge Valley, there might be the potential for escape. Unfortunately, this project will only bring about their deaths, and the destruction of much of their habitat.
Based on our own independent research in The Bluffs, we’ve positively identified nearly 250 species of fauna (not including insects). More than 20 of these species are listed as either Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern. The TRCA intends to file their Environmental Assessment by only including somewhere between 86 – 89 species. This is very incomplete data recording on their parts, and it is due to the fact that they only spent two summer months gathering data in the study area. They have left out many of the migratory species, even though their own data at Tommy Thompson Bird Research Centre shows over 100 species of migratory birds alone. These two areas are not far from each other, and should show similar numbers and variety of species. The Rouge Park lists 326 number of fauna species in their data collection (not including insects), and 762 species of flora. The TRCA has called our data “anecdotal” even though we have photographic and video evidence, and have several wildlife specials, nature photographers, and even a few scientists in our group.
Given our background in the area and as the Stakeholders for the SWP ,we’ve developed a series of recommendations.
- A full 3rd party wildlife and habitat inventory needs to be undertaken before any project is approved. The current data supplied by the TRCA is inadequate and incomplete. An impartial 3rd party group should be tasked with a full 12 month survey due to the many over-wintering waterfowl and migratory species that utilize the area.
- We recommend a halt to the project until a legitimate survey can be done. The SWP would be devastating to the plant and animal communities, as backed up by the TRCA’s own scientific data and reports. At a time when up to 70% of all life is gone, can we really afford to make this mistake again, when we have something so special right in our own backyard?
- A conservation based approach is the only solution to local development. The current focus of these projects is human recreation. As humans, we have the entire GTA as our habitat, and we can also drive, fly, or take the train anywhere we please. The Bluffs are these animals’ and plants’ homes. They have no where else to go. There are responsible, conservation minded ways to improve and increase human access without disturbance to wildlife. The SWP is not it.
- Access should be limited to the areas where it already exists. No new physical access points should be created. Instead, access can be created by use of new technology, including web cams, interpretive centres and signage. If the general public is educated and informed as to why the area is being preserved, I believe they will embrace this new direction.
- Existing revetment walls and previous projects of the TRCA in the area need remediation and habitat restoration. Parts of the area, including the Fishleigh Erosion Control Project have been left as is for up to 20 years. This is unacceptable by an agency that has the word “Conservation” in its title. Not one single milkweed plant has been planted, there has been zero habitat restoration, all these areas have been left with ugly heaps of construction rubble or “clean fill”. There used to be a lovely natural beach at the bottom of Doris McCarthy Trail, now it is heaps of armour stone and rubble. If this is indicative of the TRCA’s environmental work, perhaps a different agency should be tasked with remediation and restoration work in the area.
- Admission should be charged into Bluffer’s Park and conservation agents or park rangers should be hired full time to enforce by-laws and police the park for inappropriate and destructive behaviour from park goers. We have observed terrible things from park goers in Bluffer’s over the years. These types of behaviour would not be acceptable at any Provincial or National Park. The City of Toronto has told us over and over again that they do not have the by-law officers available to police the park, nor or they interested in providing one. All I can say is unacceptable!
- The habitat corridors to the Rouge should be restored. This can include wildlife bridges and culverts along Kingston Road, especially along the Kingston Rd. extension before it reaches the 401. Every single day there are multiple wildlife deaths from animals attempting to access their habitat.
- The Scarborough Bluffs should be annexed into the Rouge and protected as a conservation area due to its significant wildlife, plant communities, geology and diverse ecosystems. It really is a gem beyond measure that a city as large as Toronto has an area like this tucked away in hiding. To develop for human recreation purposes is a short-sighted tragedy. We believe a full-scale urban conservation effort would bring National, and even Global attention in a positive way, and create hope for other communities facing these kind of development pressures.
In closing, I would like to stress to everyone how very important the decisions we make in our local environment are, and how we have a choice to make better decisions.
Says Dr. Mike Barret, head of science and policy at WWF: “It’s pretty clear under ‘business as usual” we will see continued declines in these wildlife populations. But I think now we’ve reached a point where there isn’t really any excuse to let this carry on.”
Eminent Biologist E.O Wilson (and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes) is calling for humans to set aside 50% of the planet permanently to preserve the remaining life and habitat.
In these times of mass extinction and environmental devastation, it is up to us to be the voices of sanity and reason. To continue to wilfully destroy nature for no good reason is madness. A giant paved trail is not a good reason to destroy nature, especially in a city that is already blessed with numerous accessible and beautiful parks and green spaces. We need to do something different. Something daring. Something that will persevere and remain into the future. Only a conservation based approach that takes into account the lives of these few and precious remaining species and habitat will do that.
Say no to the SWP. Say no to a recreation based approach.
Say yes to a future where we can live beside nature, and enjoy it for generations to come. There is a responsible way to do this. Let’s plan our future together.
– Thor Heyerdahl – Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature – 1938
The photos featured in this gallery were all taken in the area of The Scarborough Bluffs, and are all species that are listed as either Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern, and are supposed to be habitat protected by law. Thanks to Ann Brokelman and Arvo Poolar for sharing their wonderful photographic work with us.