Fencing off trails smells fishy

Why were Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) staff creeping about the forests of Hiawatha installing cameras on Sunday September 15th? Why were workers putting stakes in the ground along what appears to be a looming fence line near fifth line on Sunday the 22nd? When did Sunday became such a common government work day?

The first question led to me being approached by some residents near the Fish Hatchery and the second and third have now led to the inevitable conclusion that something very “fishy” is going on up at the hatchery. Now I’ll fill you in on the middle as best I can, because the story gets complicated by a “de-fence-ive” politician and a lot of unanswered questions.

According to sources, on August 21, 2013 the Tarentorus fish culture station manager, Paul Vieira, informed the Kinsmen Club that mountain bike trails would not be permitted on lands managed by the fish hatchery. Vieira is “concerned” that trail erosion was leading to fish gill irritation. He offered the Kinsmen no proof of mountain bike trails causing any such erosion. Kinsmen suggested alternative trail management options and Vieira refused to consider them.

Vieira’s “concerns” somehow convinced MNR purse-string holders to give him a budget for a fence to protect “sensitive areas.”

In the absence of being told the location or size of the proposed fence, people who enjoy those trails jumped to worst case scenarios about losing full access to recreate on the property.

It took me several emails and telephone calls to our local MPP and the Minister of Natural Resources, David Orazietti to finally be told that the proposed fence cost is under $100,000 and will cordon off close to ten percent of the 588 acre area just off the Hiawatha Red Pine trail system. (58 acres is still a pretty big area to fence with no evidence of actual impact).

Orazietti also said that “no existing, authorized trails” will be affected and that the headwaters of Thayer Pond need to be protected, since they supply one third of the fish for restocking in the province.

But he also said that only the Kinsmen Club have a land permit use for the winter months for the groomed cross-country ski trails at Hiawatha. No one has a land-use permit for Crown land for the Spring, Summer, or Fall.

It’s important to note that single-track mountain bike trails are enjoyed year-round by cyclists, dog-walkers, snowshoers, cross-country skiers, birders, hikers, geo-cachers and more …and have been for decades. (For full-disclosure, our family is one of many that enjoys those trails.) Unfortunately, Orazietti’s statement implies that the only trails that are for sure “safe” from this fence are the groomed cross-country ski trails.

Orazietti prominently displays the Cycle Ontario strategy on his website, so surely he won’t approve a fence that blocks off so many cycling trails without sufficient consultation and research, right?

I asked if the impact of a fence on the wildlife of the area had been done; as bears, deer, moose, coyotes, foxes, fishers, and more call that area home. He paused, and then said his priority was the fish. (Too bad deer can’t vote?)

David made valid points, such as that it is Crown land, and people can’t just go on it and cut down trees without a permit to build trails. But any contractor will tell you that to put in the proposed fence you’ll need to cut down hundreds of trees. And it’s important to note that single track trail builders don’t cut down trees, they twist the path around them.

If the concern is further expansion of trails that might cause erosion problems, don’t cut off your leg because you think you might have a wart on your toe. Amputation is a last resort typically – but here it is the first proposal. Why not put signage marking the sensitive areas? Signs would save voters and tax payers a lot of money and/or keep at least one employee off the layoff list at the MNR for a couple of years.

Alternatively or additionally, why not approach the Sault Cycling Club, who have trained trail builders? Give them a land-use permit for what has already been drawing physicians to the area, entertaining tourists, giving our youth another reason to stay in town, and keeping residents fit. Do this before you fence off the trails!

Given my last analogy, this fence seems like a knee-jerk reaction. However Orazietti has said a public meeting will be called “soon” to finally disclose where the fence is going in. Hopefully the meeting happens before the fence is erected given that the staking seemingly started this last Sunday.

Orazietti said he will invite the media and community.

I hope concerned citizens will attend.

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