People are destroying Toronto’s parks. Meet those who restore them

On a clear morning in late April, drones, news helicopters and billowing gray smoke circled over Toronto’s High Park, announcing that the park’s rare black oak savanna was once again in flames — a necessary and dramatic disruption to maintain the savanna habitat. and the endangered prairie grasses below.

“We usually do this in rural areas,” fire chief Jason Sickel told the crowd, which included a handful of High Park stewards in neon green vests with “volunteer” on the back. On the day of the burn, they were ordered to hand out pamphlets explaining to startled park visitors that the smoke from the controlled burn was not a sign of danger, but of renewal.

The incineration, which is done about every two years, is a striking reminder of how many deliberate interventions are needed to keep nature ‘natural’ in a densely populated urban environment. Less visible are the thousands of volunteer stewards who spend their weekday mornings, evenings and weekends clearing litter and removing invasive weeds that threaten the health and integrity of Toronto’s parks and canyons.

“It’s death in a thousand budget cuts,” former volunteer steward Karen Yukich said of the daily mounting damage to High Park’s wildlife areas. Yukich, co-chair of the public information and education resource High Park Nature, describes people trampling through environmentally sensitive areas, disrupting aquatic habitats and widening pathways, making them more susceptible to invasive plants. She doesn’t even know where to start with the stray dog ​​walkers.

People watch and take photos as a prescription burn occurs in High Park for the first time in three years.

The struggle to defend Toronto’s parks against the pressures of an advancing city goes back a long way, Yukich said, citing a 1923 Toronto Daily Star article written by Ernest Hemingway, using the pseudonym Peter Jackson. In it, he likens the weakened city-fought oaks of High Park to “an animal from prehistoric times, built only for a particular environment.” If that environment changes, he wrote, the animal dies.

When careless visitors, unknowingly or intentionally, damage Toronto’s parks and canyons, others are hard at work restoring them. High Park’s stewards have looked after the park for more than 25 years and meet every other Sunday from May to November. At each session, 15 to 25 volunteers, supervised by city staff, work to remove invasive species such as Japanese hedge parsley and European sea buckthorn—volunteers call this “buckthorn eradication”—to plant more than 1,000 native plants per year and collect seeds to propagate and replant in the park.

“We’re going two steps forward and one step back,” says Yukich, who began volunteering in the late 1990s as part of an adoption program on the degraded plateaus north of the Grenadier Cafe. The site has since been restored so successfully that it is now included in the ecologically important areas of the park.

“There have been improvements, but at the same time, usage has increased so much.”

The increasing use of parks, especially during the pandemic, has increased both the need for and interest in volunteer management in parks across the country. The 2021 Canadian City Parks Report says 98 percent of cities across the country saw more people in their parks during the pandemic. At the same time, a further 60 percent said COVID-19 had put a strain on their parks’ operating budgets with expenditures such as additional staffing and signage, new public space pilots such as converting streets into parks and increased maintenance requests. The survey, by parks advocacy group Park People, also found that nearly half of cities saw increased interest in volunteering.

Not everyone can just walk into a ravine and start weeding. Toronto residents who wish to help must do so through one of the city’s approved stewardship programs. According to Kim Statham, director of Urban Forestry, the number of volunteers exceeds the capacity of the programs to put them to work. Last year, Toronto Nature Stewards was founded to connect more willing volunteers to areas in need by launching a pilot program. For the first time, civilian-led teams will operate unsupervised in nine of the city’s wildlife refuges.

The crew of Ashbridge’s Bay recently started their second season on a chilly morning. As groups of birdwatchers trained their binoculars up in search of a migrating common yellowthroat, chief steward Clyde Robinson and his team set their eyes on a piece of garlic mustard, one of 10 invasive plants they are allowed to remove. Volunteers identify second-year plants — the ones to be pulled — by the telltale white flower that sprouts from them, but the cold spring has delayed the flower’s appearance. Instead, they settle for cleaning up litter.

“Working with my hands is a nice contrast to all the brain work I used to do,” says retired technology consultant Ian MacRae. He had just emerged from a thicket of dogwood where he’d crawled on his hands and knees with a knife to cut loose a Stanfield panty that was tangled in a branch. MacRae, who also volunteers with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the Toronto Botanical Garden, said he also nearly joined the Ashbridge’s Bay session on Thursday night, but “one a day is enough.”

As the group returned to the parking lot, full garbage bags in hand, Robinson reflected on the success of the program, which has already doubled the number of stewards and is negotiating permission to manage 23 additional locations. “I’m shocked at what we were able to do last year,” he said of the more than 420 garbage bags of invasive species the group has removed from the nine-acre Ashbridge’s Bay site. “In this park we can make a big difference over the years.”

When nature relies on regular disturbances to thrive and regenerate, the nudge it needs sometimes comes in surprising form. While the prescribed burn in High Park renews and protects the black oak savanna ecosystem, a century-old bulrush and bulrush seed bank came to life last month after being evicted by an excavation crew near the Don Mouth naturalization site.

Sometimes it takes the hands of thousands of stewards to keep nature in the city natural, every day, from May to November, rain or shine.

Emily Waugh is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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