Rouge Park: A special guest blog posting by Jason Murray

Rouge Park holds a special place in my heart. Not because I used to go tobogganing down Snake Hill, not because I used to go snowshoeing there with my two Bernese Mountain Dogs. It's because that's where I learned to ride. When I was in high school me and my riding buddies would split our time between Rouge Park and another close by location earning our dues. Crash, talk about what happened, decide what line to try next, try again, crash again... repeat until you'd cleaned it. It has rock, roots, climbs, descents, flowy singletrack, even stream crossings, everything a beginner mountain biker could ask for.

Historically mountain biking has been illegal in the Rouge Park. Since before the establishment of the Rouge Park in 1995, mountain biking has not been a permitted use. Cycling is allowed in the park, but only on the roads that traverse the park; not on the numerous natural surface trails that exist within it. Despite this, mountain biking has historically occurred on the lands that make up the Rouge since the beginning of the sport in the early 1980s. When I was learning to ride at 15, I went to the Park because I could ride my bike to it. I would head out from my house, ride 10-15km in the Park, then ride home. (This incidentally is one reason it's important to have gateway trail systems, so kids can ride to them. But that's the topic of a different post.)

Over the years, mountain biking in the Park has come under increasing scrutiny; fines have been handed out, user conflict has reportedly increased, illegal trails are being created. The Park offers a dozen kilometers of singletrack very close to the boarders of both Toronto and Pickering. The popularity of the Park to mountain bikers, despite the restriction on use, speaks to an unmet need so close to three urban centres.

When the Rouge Park Alliance announced they would be doing a Trails Master Plan for the park there was hope that we could, at the very least, start talking to the land manager about mountain biking. At most we were hoping to see mountain biking legitimized in the park. A coalition of IMBA Canada, the DMBA (Durham Mountain Biking Association), and TORBA (Toronto Off-road Mountain Bicycling Association), as well as numerous individual mountain bikers, attended the three open houses. After #1, it was looking gloomy, no mention of mountain biking. After #2, things were looking up, we'd be permitted in some areas and we even had our own trail (granted the "trail" was just an old access road). But the carpet was pulled from under us when, at open house #3, all mention of mountain biking was removed from the Plan. When the Chair of the Alliance was asked what happened (by me), he said that mountain biking was not seen as a good fit for the Park at this time. We were welcome to form a delegation to the Rouge Alliance Board if we wanted.

You need to keep in mind that we approached this the way IMBA approaches all such matters: respectfully, but authoritatively. We acknowledged the challenges, perceived or actual, that the Rouge Park Alliance and Rouge Park staff had identified. We indicated that we have workable solutions that have worked in similar situations -- some right close by (think Don Valley). Park staff were open to working with us, not just Rouge Park staff, but also staff from surrounding municipalities (Toronto, Markham, Pickering, etc.) that were assigned to the Park. I personally spoke to a number of the elected officials on the Rouge Park Alliance board and our requests were positively received.

After open house #3 I was very disheartened and downtrodden when we'd seemingly reached the end of the line and absolutely no progress had been made. This, despite assurance from numerous people (staff and board members) that they supported our efforts. Quite a few came up to offer apologies and condolences. It felt a little bit like a funeral. So a decision was made to form a delegation.

Ultimately we formed two delegations to the Rouge Park Alliance. Both consisted of IMBA Canada, DMBA, and TORBA. At the first we were given 10 minutes to speak. We prepared for that, but ended up speaking for close to 30 minutes due to the number of questions that were raised. It was a success in our eyes, and a few of the board members spoke to us afterwards to express their thanks and support.

But then came the final Trail Plan, and with it no change. Things were as they were after open house #3 despite the good showing of our delegation. So we went back in front of the Rouge Park Alliance for a second presentation. This time we were only given 5 minutes. The point we stressed was that mountain biking most definitely is a compatible use, that we've repeatedly indicated our willingness to work with them, and are quite frankly confused as to the cold reception.

Slam! That was the last of it. But of course something else was going on with respect to Rouge Park. For years the same people who had just slammed the door in our face had been pushing for Parks Canada to assume ownership of Rouge Park. And to the surprise of everyone, they got what they asked for. But one must be careful what one asks for...

With the creation of Canada's first National Urban Park, the Rouge Park will change ownership from a mix of municipal owners and land managers to one: Parks Canada. Whereas the Rouge Alliance had no interest in permitting mountain biking, Parks Canada recognizes mountain biking as an acceptable activity within its parks.

It looks like we're going to get one more kick at the can. And we better make sure it's a good, strong, accurate kick. Because if we miss this chance that will be it for a generation or more.

I cannot stress this enough: mountain biking will ONLY be allowed in the Rouge National Urban Park if we make the case that there is a need that is not being met, and that our use in compatible with the Park. For the Rouge National Urban Park, both are clearly the case, but we will have to make our point, clearly and loudly.

We are being given a chance to do so. The public consultation phase for the Rouge National Urban Park has started. There will be three open houses, and a public survey is available on the Park Canada website.

Please plan on attending at least one, maybe all, of the open houses, as well as completing the online survey. Your local clubs most certainly will be there doing their best to make the case for mountain biking in Rouge National Urban Park, but you should be there as well. Clubs, shops, individuals; old, young; men, women, new riders and long time rides; everyone needs to make the case. Why? Because this is a very big deal, not just for mountain biking in the GTA, but for mountain biking in Ontario and Canada.

What should we be emphasizing?

  • Mountain biking be accepted as an acceptable activity in the park.
  • Improvements and expansion to the existing trail system. The previous Rouge Trail Master Plan is not adequate for mountain biking or a National Urban Park. Emphasize an interest in natural surface trails that mountain bikers find enjoyable -- not only paved or crushed gravel trails and walking paths.
  • Political and financial support for the construction of a progressive bike skills park on the Bear Road land fill (owned by the City of Toronto).
  • Representation for mountain biking as a stakeholder of the Park.

Read the Action Alert on the Rouge for more info on Open Houses.

Jason Murray was IMBA Canada's Ontario Regional Coordinator from 2008 to 2011

In: Ontario