#GreenHamOnt: Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System is a management wonder.

Image by Peter Macdonald | flickr.com

Image by Peter Macdonald | flickr.com

With over 3,400 acres of parkland, 137 kilometres of hiking trails, and more than 120 waterfalls, Hamilton has a diverse and unique natural environment.  Hamilton is becoming increasingly known for its fascinating environmental features; however, it wasn't long ago that the city was considered the ‘industrial armpit of Canada’. The Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System hopes to link the city’s greenspaces together.

Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) is an endangered tree in Ontario. Its habitat is being choked, the seedlings are eaten away by small animals, and the species itself is being replaced. The only place in Ontario where we now have any Red Mulberry trees left is owned by the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, just outside of Hamilton. Fortunately, this area is now designated for conservation. In 2013, the area came under a larger system called Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System. This large system has many a feather in its cap. The EcoPark System currently spans 1900 hectares, including several important areas like the Niagara Escarpment, a World Biosphere Reserve recognised by the UNESCO. Parts of the Escarpment include south-facing areas, and this creates unique ecosystems where southern plant species exist in their northern limits, and some northern plant species exist in their southern limits. The EcoPark System includes 50 endangered at-risk species, and nearly 1600 documented species. All of this immense biodiversity lies within a region with a major harbour, extensive industrialized areas, and some of the most densely populated areas of Canada. But the ecosystems are probably not the only complex component of the EcoPark System. The management is where it gets more interesting.

Conservation is hard enough when there is one area, and one manager. How does conservation work when there are nine agencies each with different mandates, 1,900 hectares spread across multiple towns and cities, with the highest level of biodiversity in the country, including a long list of ecosystems (from forests and wetlands to caves, cliffs, talus slopes, streams, savannah, open shoreline, and tallgrass prairie). The Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System is an entity with nine partner agency: Bruce Trail Conservancy, City of Burlington, Conservation Halton, Halton Region, City of Hamilton, Hamilton Conservation Authority, Hamilton Naturalists’ Club, McMaster University, Royal Botanical Gardens. They are also supported by Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan Office. The EcoPark System is so complex, the agencies had to divide it into six ‘Heritage Lands’ before making Management Plans for each sector separately. Each sector includes lands owned by multiple agencies, and the plans range from biking trails and conservation areas to creating infrastructure. Surely it would be a challenge to get nine agencies to agree on any specifics? Deborah Herbert, Coordinator, Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System does not agree. She rather finds this arrangement to an opportunity, where every final decision is backed by nine formal partner agencies. In fact, the speed with which things have moved for the EcoPark System is telling. The idea for the EcoPark System was informally floated in 2006, and in 2007 the members procured funding support for two years to develop a vision, conduct the background research, and engage the public and stakeholders. By early 2010, the partner agencies were already on board, with funding secured for another cycle. On June 20, 2013, the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System officially came into being.

The challenges for the Park will only increase with time. According to the Ontario Population Projections Update of the Ministry of Finance, the population of Hamilton alone is expected to rise from 540 thousand in 2011, to 580 thousand in 2021, and 627 thousand in 2031. As the population grows, so will urbanization and industrialization. Conservationists generally claim that the hardest part of conservation is to find support among the local populations. Not surprisingly, the 2013-2015 Work Plan for the EcoPark System focuses on engaging with people, building a sense of pride and ownership in the Park System, encouraging voluntary commitments, and raising funds.  In fact, families are a large focus for the EcoPark System. The EcoPark System already has 32 acres given to it by families, and it is working towards getting more private owners to commit to conservation. It is this complex management and public face of the EcoPark System that makes it greater than the sum of its parts, unlike no other in the region.