Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

Parks and natural areas overwhelmed by unruly visitors

2021 01 24 hawke parks

By David Hawke -- Well, here we go again. History, on a grand scale, is once more being written by the hordes of humanity. Last go-round was in the early 1800s when Europe and the United Kingdom were packed with people with nowhere to go and poor job prospects. And so, they surged to North America with the understanding that the land was basically unoccupied and opportunities for establishment and growth would be “boundless.”

          Of course, much of North America was indeed already occupied by people, albeit scattered in locations across the landscape. These Native peoples had found that through hard work and an intimate understanding of the land, they could survive quite well, thank you. But then the newbies started to show up. Okay, how bad could it get? Perhaps there’s enough room for a few more.

          As history will confirm, that “few more” turned into millions more. After the initial shock of experiencing these boorish newcomers, agreements of land use were drawn up, treaties of understanding that expressed “while the land is limited, the peoples are many, so let’s figure out a sharing procedure that will benefit all while respecting the land.” Seemed like a good idea.

          However, like a plague, these newcomers swept across the land, consuming the natural resources, displacing those who had come before and altering, simply by sheer numbers, the intent and scope of any land management practices that previously had been agreed upon. This led to some pretty pissed off feelings between the original locals and the arrogant newcomers.

          But was it simply arrogance? Perhaps a level of naivety should be considered. The surge of newcomers (call them settlers, call them colonists, call them the white man, call them Europeans, whatever... you know of whom I refer) were arriving so fast and in such great numbers that an education of land ethic was impossible.

          For those who had already been living on the land, including some of the earliest colonists, they could but look on in confusion and horror as the landscape became altered right before their eyes. In the 1830s, Suzanna Moodie wrote in her records (later called “Roughing it in the Bush”) of her dismay of the rapid loss of forests and wildflowers along the shorelines of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River; in 1863, S. H. Hammond wrote in his book “Hunting Adventures in the Northern Wilds” of his nervous amazement at how, within a five-year period, the wilderness areas he had once tramped through had been transformed into tourist meccas. Yes, 1863, not 1963.

          And we’re doing it again. Replacing the original role of the Native peoples now are the environmentalists, park naturalists, land stewards, and conservationists. These are the folks that are now experiencing and witnessing the rapid change of use of our parklands, the overwhelming onslaught of outdoor recreationalists. Replacing the roles of the surging masses are, well, surging masses of naïve and sometimes boorish people seeking the mythical solace of Nature… and wanting a well-appointed dog park or bike trail within it.

          Our short history shows that a few folks saw the vision of total wasteland and have tried to thwart that scenario by setting aside tracts of land that would be exempt from development. Thus, nature reserves and environmental parks were created, little isolated parcels of land that would always be there to show what the land was like, once upon a time (or as Joni Mitchell called them, “tree museums”). Development continued on its steady course but now had to swirl around these green obstacles.

          And now we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, a world-wide concern of a virus that could and is killing off us humans. In Round One we were told to stay isolated, stay away from others, stop going to work places, stop gathering in groups. Most complied, unfortunately many did not. So now we are in Round Two.

          From Round One we learned that while staying isolated and staying indoors was good for our medical health, it was actually bad for our mental and physical health. We are a social species and gathering and sharing experiences with like-minded others is what we do best. 

          So, this time we are told to, within reason, go outside, enjoy nature, go fishing, get some brisk exercise and fresh air by snowshoeing or hiking. This is new for some folks, and with the added pressure of how to entertain/educate their own children who are also in the house, many families are turning to those nearby parks and nature reserves as the place to go. And they are, of course, bringing their dogs with them.

          Over the days prior to writing this column, I have talked with fellow land stewards about how to cope with this sudden tsunami of people “invading” our previously unoccupied lands. Provincial parks at least had parking areas and on-site staff to assist visitors, but even these levels of service had been established when numbers of visitors were manageable. Nature reserves (which are actually private lands) usually had parking for one to three cars and rudimentary walking trails at best.

          By example, last September, Algonquin Provincial Park actually had to close due to the overwhelming number of people in cars coming to view the fall colours. Being banned from using tour buses, the leaf-peepers had rented or commandeered family cars and “escaped” the cities to have a look at Nature. This huge increase in visitation happened at every park in southern Ontario.

          “Visitor management” was not a term that nature reserve stewards have paid much attention to; land management plans traditionally have focused on preserving habitats for species at risk. And maybe a little walking trail to allow access for potential donors to experience a slice of Nature.

That has all changed now.

          Roadside parking has plugged neighbourhood roadways, increased use of the trails has led to packed and dangerous icy conditions, a lot littering is happening, and the number of dogs (both leashed and illegally off leash) has skyrocketed. Lacking a gatehouse (and staff), it is impossible to close these properties. And experiences of the past have shown that “Trail Closed” signs have incurred little effect on some visitors.

          Visitor management is a new, immediate and challenging task for all land stewards. The original intents, or treaties, of land management are being compromised by the sudden and huge increase of humans seeking outdoor experiences on the last remaining tracts of “natural” lands. Very few can go back to visit the family farm, as houses now sit on what was “the back 40” of Grandpa’s homestead.

          This situation is new (again), it’s active, and it’s challenging. Communication and education of respectful land ethics are being put forth. Will the masses hear it? Or will we love to death the very places that are held as examples of what was once considered wilderness?

Dave’s Notebook:  Brrr. The temperature is minus 20C here this morning! Great frost patterns on the windows! Hope you remembered to fill the bird feeders.

© 2021 David J. Hawke

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