Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Bad Day in the Park

The park was oddly quiet. Deserted in fact, which was strange given how nice a day it was. Normally there would be people.

We had been there for hours, but we were now on our way out. My wife and I were just getting to the top of the valley. Our dog, as usual, was a few feet ahead scouting out the path. It was a beautiful day -- quiet and relaxing -- but that was all about to change.

As we came around some bushes, to our left there was a group of eight or ten people looking somewhat out of place. We continued along the trail as a young girl broke off from the group and approached us.

“Do you know where you are?” she said in an authoritative, but slightly condescending voice.

I started to answer, but then I noticed that she was wearing a rather elaborate outfit. Although it was warm, she had on a vest over a number of different layers. She had a backpack, and I think water bottles strapped to her side. With her hat, she looked like a cross between a guide in the outback and one from the Rockies; like someone ready to lead a month long trek through the barren wilderness. It was a little out of place for this park. Pinned to her vest was an overly large badge with some official looking writing on it.

We’ve been hiking in the park for years. It’s a serenely peaceful place and like many of the nicer parks and valleys in Toronto it’s not packed with people. You do find hikers and dog-walkers there, but not a lot of them. Most come because they appreciate nature and want to get out of the city to enjoy it. They’re generally happy, friendly and very relaxed.

Ignoring my silence she continued. “You not allowed to have your dog off leash, it’s a Toronto by-law”, she scolded.

The “dog issue” has been going on for some time now. There is a small, yet vocal segment of Toronto that hates dogs. Sure, there have been incidents with a few careless owners, but most people in Toronto love their dogs and are over-protective of them.

Life in the city for an animal is not always the best, so those of us that treasure the health of our pets want them to do what they were born to do. Run, explore, sniff and generally enjoy themselves. Leashing them is a cruel compromise sometimes necessary on city streets or when there are lots of people about, but not in a wide open (and oddly empty) park.

The guide however, clearly didn’t see that perspective. Even through she was dressed as an outdoorsman, she was uncomfortable around our dog. I found that very unusual since the old girl is usually a magnet for animal lovers. She is a strong, happy animal that is very affectionate and most content when getting pet by strangers.

Still it was a beautiful day and I wasn’t in the mood to argue. I called our dog. She returned to us and sat patiently as we leashed her. We had already been out for several hours, so her city angst had melted away into a peaceful calm with nature. She was tired, and it was time to go home.

The guide continued “You’re not allowed to walk there”. She pointed back to the trail we had been following. “You have to stay on the trail!” She pointed to the old service road that her group had been walking along.

I’d always considered that service road to be a blight on the landscape. It was built when the area was still a strip-mined quarry and those industrial scars have yet to heal over. It gently wraps around the old toxic mining pits, which someone flooded and are now homes for the occasional bird family. I had to bite my lip as this guide somehow insinuated that any such remnant of a violent industrial past was somehow a trail. It was wide enough to allow two ATVs side-by-side and covered in old wood-chips. It was the least desirable part of the park, but it is convenient for getting from one side to the other.

A trial is a line of dirt or compressed leafs that is followed by people and/or animals. From the width of the trail, you can see its popularity. Over time, old trails fade and new ones emerge. The best trails are the faintly marked animals trails because they lead to the most interesting places. Well-trod areas are paths and something covered with wood-chips is a road. Neither of these are trails, and I doubt the sincerity of anyone dressed as a guide if they can’t distinguish that not too subtle difference. We had been following a trail.

She continued on with a rather condescending speech about how tromping around in nature will somehow break it. Apparently her organization has figured out nature and in order to allow it to be ‘natural’ people shouldn’t interact with it in anyway. We should stay on the road and only take pictures from a distance. In this rather narrow philosophy, people and dogs are no longer natural.

She had concerns that our dog might eat the animals, break sticks or otherwise interfere with her organization’s attempts to control the landscape. I came to realize that her backers might have been the people responsible for the recent alterations we had seen. Someone put up signs, poster boards and an oddly misplaced emergency life buoy far from water. Some of the trees had been prematurely cut-down. They apparently have a vision for the landscape, although the landscape has its own vision, which they don’t seem to like.

Then she gave me a pamphlet that had a map on one side and a set of rules on the other. The map showed that a group called the “Rouge Park Alliance” has laid claim to the half of the park that overlaps Toronto’s borders. Dogs have to be leashed, and people are no longer allowed to go beyond the “marked trails”. The pamphlet also points to a website on it with more information:

At this point we parted ways. My wife, dog and I headed back to the car, while the guide rejoined what I now understand to be a tour that she was leading. I controlled myself in her presence, but an examination of the group’s website revealed that other similarly accosted people -- the ones who are generally relaxed and friendly -- erupted in anger and frustration. That’s not surprising.

I supposed I could have tried to argue, but her arrogant tone quickly convinced me that any rational argument would fall on deaf ears. Critical thinking is never behind a choice to drive out the people using a park so that they can be replaced by tours. Logic isn’t used in a decision to wall off a common area. An understanding of nature isn’t driving the desire to turn a wild landscape into a manicured garden. This authoritarian agenda may be cloaked behind the cover of the green movement, but it has little to do with improving our world.

I suppose I could try to bring this to someone’s attention. I did try the Toronto Star, but with the major media under assault, they’ve drifted away from investigating the truth and over to more sensationalist coverage. It would be unwise for them to run articles that questioned any green endeavor, no matter how poorly it was conceived. It might not help to sell papers.

The city itself is unlikely to listen or care. Bureaucrats here play a vicious tug of war with each other for control of the wealth. It’s abstracted from whether or not things need to be done, or whether they are right. It’s just a game they play without regard to the consequences. Some days money flows in one senseless direction, only to be abruptly switched the next day. They play, while our city falls apart at the seams.

In the end, I doubt there is anything to do that could change this trajectory. They’ve taken over.  We’ll have to find somewhere else, farther from Toronto’s borders. Our park is becoming a walled garden available only for superficial bus tours. However in its isolation there can only be trouble. Abandon spaces tend to get filled in big cities. But the type of foresight to understand that is not something you find commonly in Toronto these days. Although I think Joni Mitchell would understand when she sang in “They Paved Paradise” the lyrics:

“They took all the trees, and put em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got till it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot”


  1. This isn't my issue, but I've been hearing about this for years in the city I live in, Boulder, CO. We have a green belt here, called "open space." The county buys up land out in the countryside, in between cities. The idea is to prevent sprawl. I might be wrong about this, but I think 2/3rds of the open space is off limits. It's just allowed to lay fallow. The rest is developed with trails that people can recreate on, though people are expected to stay on the trails. There's been this issue for a while about dogs being off leash on open space. There's literally a political interest group here of dog owners, and they periodically petition the county about dog-related issues on open space. There's also a political interest group for bike riders, though their issues have more to do with co-existing with cars on the roads. Anyway, this issue with dogs and open space used to get talked about in the city paper often.

    One of the concerns expressed here had to do with preserving the natural habitat of wild plants and animals. I don't think there was a concern about dogs eating the plants and animals. I think it had more to do with trampling the plants, and scaring the animals off, because their owners would go after them when their dogs went off the trail, and dogs would chase after the animals that were around. I think one of the compromises was that owners could have their dogs off-leash if the dogs followed voice commands, but with so much land to manage, this was on the honor system. It seems like this is still a matter of contention, because I continue to hear about dogs on open space trails from time to time. I don't know if they're allowed on open space anymore.

  2. Continuing...

    Politically, the county has to come to a compromise on this, because they want the open space program to continue, and by state law they have to come to the voters to continue to levy a tax that funds it. The tax is almost always approved, but in recent years there's been more push-back from the voters. One of the issues that's been raised is the amount of open space that has gone undeveloped. People feel, justifiably, that they're paying for this land that's being bought up, and they feel entitled to use it. It hasn't come to a head yet, but it may in the near future.

    I know a little about what's going on in what you describe, because when my mother, her boyfriend, and I first moved to Colorado, when I was 10 years old, we had a couple cats. We moved into a place in a small mountain town, near Boulder. The neighbors did not like us having cats one bit. They complained that they scared the birds away. After several months our landlord told us they didn't want us around because of this, and so we moved to Boulder.

  3. Continuing...

    There is a reverence for nature here in Boulder (though it's not as prevalent as in the mountain town I mentioned), but it goes overboard with some people. They really want to experience all of nature, as if it should be undisturbed, except by people like them, and that we shouldn't even have a city here. For example, we have people who hate how the city manages prairie dogs. The city has tried various ways of managing them, and being humane about it, but every time, a vocal minority complains about how it goes about it, because it always involves a bunch of prairie dogs being killed. What I've tried to explain to some people is that the city is located right on prairie dog habitat. One of the consequences of this is that most or all of their natural predators have been driven away. The prairie dogs use some of the available land for burrows, but occasionally they grow too numerous for an area, or a property owner buys the land and wants to develop it. I don't feel that uncomfortable about some of them being killed off. That's what would happen to them if this place was wild! That's how their population would be controlled, but since predators aren't around to do that, *we have to do it ourselves!* That's the part they never get. Since humans are the ones doing it, that's somehow unnatural, and unethical. If wild hawks, eagles, or wolves were killing them off, they'd have no problem with it. Since humans are involved, the prairie dog advocates want to anthropomorphize the animals, as if this is like how Americans of more than 100 years ago drove the Indians off their land, and they ask questions like, "How would you like it if someone forced you out of your home?" It never seems that productive to try to debate this issue intelligently with them.

  4. Yes it's weird, but I suspect that it derives from our internal need to be special (likely a part of our instinct for self-preservation). Perhaps in order to justify our behavior we have to have some solid reason for whatever we do, but that reason is not applicable to everyone or everything (because it is inherently selfish). Thus we need to draw lines: them vs. us, humans vs. nature, good vs. bad.

    Under that perspective we view our intelligence as special, but not the intelligence of the other creatures even though we know that some of them like dogs think, dream, have emotions and can communicate with us. We view our makeup as different, we are not part of nature, that is something else. We view our effects as distinct, a city is not like a bunch of termite mounds or a herd of animals. And the natural consequence of such a divide is that then we don't want the two to mix.

    To me, in regards to the environment, it is as shortsighted as just wantonly polluting the place. The more we segregate, the farther we lose touch with our roots and the easier it becomes for later people to mow down the place and build condos. People can't really appreciate stuff if it's put on a shelf, so when the people who put it there are no longer around, it becomes easy to throw it away (which happens to most things collected by people when they get past being old).

    Given that our little blue planet isn't going to get any bigger and that we may actually double in population still (National Geographic, a few months past), we should be interested in finding ways to make things sustainable, not isolated.

    In your case forcing everyone to squish together onto some small trail in the "open space" defeats the purpose of having an open space. It might have well been a small garden instead of a large plot of land. A quiet, peaceful, isolated walk through the country isn't what you're going to get on a crowded trail, so eventually there is no reason to use the trail. I suspect that our people here are drinking the same kool-aid.

    Instead of segregating the two, they should be finding ways to bring them together. More park in the city, and more people in the park. And they should come to realize that any area that is missing representatives of a major species (us) is incomplete. Too many of anything is bad, but then so is too few...

  5. You bring up an interesting point. I like your perspective about "more park in the city, and more people in the park."

    I have heard second-hand that some environmentalists view humans as *unnatural*. I really don't know how they can justify that position. If such people exist, they haven't thought that through. All I've heard from environmentalists first-hand is that our modern civilization is destructive to wild nature, and I can see some justification for that POV. One can imagine that if we didn't have our state of civilization, there wouldn't be as many people, and we wouldn't be able to travel as far as we do now, and so we would have less impact on wild nature. In the case of open space, that would mean people would visit it at a slower rate, and thereby lessen the impact. Since we don't live in that state, the reasoning goes, there's a need to have some separation of people from wild nature, because our civilization is capable of overpowering it. Taking their reasoning to its logical conclusion, they're not necessarily saying that humans are unnatural to the environment, but that our civilization is unnatural, and it enables us to have a much greater impact than would be natural otherwise. There is some justification for that POV. As I noted in your previous post, civilization is artificial. I meant that from a mental and psychological perspective, but there is some justification to apply it to us physically as well. If this were not so, then I think we could say that all of our environmental regulations are unnecessary, because everything we produce (waste products and all) has natural antecedents (they're ultimately produced by us, and we are natural), and so therefor has just as much of a place in the natural world as anything else. I think we would agree, that's taking the concept too far. There is some need to separate the capabilities that our civilization gives us from wild nature. Part of that is the impact of so many people being able to visit wild places. I suspect this is the reason to have a separation of people and dogs on trails from everything else.

  6. Continuing...

    When I've gone up to Rocky Mountain National Park, there are signs up admonishing people to stay on the roads and trails, because of the tundra. Plants grow very slowly in that environment. If they are destroyed, it takes decades for them to grow back, as small as they are. One can imagine as well that if they are trampled on enough, they will be destroyed and not grow at all close to the roads and trails, and so people will feel the need to go farther afield to experience them, which will cause more trampling, with the exception of areas that are inaccessible to people, such as high cliffs.

    Where I live, we have city parks where people can do whatever they want on them, and are only admonished to not litter. There's a clear delineation, though, between city parks and open space.

  7. Continuing...

    I see your point about a trail being established by people and/or animals, and that it really is unreasonable to fear that people and animals will break sticks and such. I agree that people are a part of Nature to that extent. It seems like you'd be willing to follow a trail, but you didn't want to be dictated to about what was a "good" trail vs. what was a "bad" trail, and I agree with that. From what I've seen with people in my area, we have a hard time trusting that most people who visit a park are going to also have a reverence for nature, and want to preserve it. So there is a strong tendency to have the same attitude as the lady you talk about. I think what you're saying is you want to experience the parks in your own way, and you suspect others do as well. I agree with that perspective, however, there's a difference between wanting to achieve a goal (nature preservation) and actually being able to achieve it. You may think you're not harming anything by doing what you're doing, but you may be. I'm just saying. I imagine (or hope) that most people who visit open space want to preserve it, but not everybody knows how to do that. And the people who run the park, and think their policies will accomplish that goal, should look at themselves in the mirror as well from that perspective. I don't agree with the idea that just because the park service says you can and can't do certain things, that doing what you're allowed, and not doing what you're forbidden to do, will preserve them, because "they know best." They might, but It's not unreasonable to be skeptical of that.

  8. Continuing my previous comment, It's a matter of capacity.

    There was a very good speech on what we do and don't know, given by Michael Crichton in 2007 called "States of Fear: Science or Politics?" I'd give the URL to it, but I'm afraid your spam filter would trap this message if I did. You can find it on Crichton's official website (just Google his name), under "videos". The first half of his speech was on how our society has repeatedly acted like a hypochondriac about crises, that we become much more afraid of our civilization than we need to be. In the second half he talks about how we think we know a lot more than we do about Nature, and that this causes terrible environmental disasters, created by the very people we entrust to take care of our natural wild places. He described how contrary to what a lot of us believe, there is a lot of dogma, political and otherwise, practiced in our national park/forest services, and that these disasters were created by actions that were all well-intentioned. He said the main thing we need to admit is that we are blind, and from that standpoint try to carefully observe what Nature really does in response to what we do. In other words, we need to trust our beliefs and our senses a lot less when we're trying to protect the environment, and put our trust instead in the scientific perspective. This goes for us and the people we entrust to protect wild places.

  9. I had the thought, are you saying that you wish there was more park space, and that your municipality should convert some of the open space to public parks? I imagine that would solve the problem you were talking about.

  10. We actually have a lot of park space, Toronto is a fairly lush city. Rouge Park sits on North East corner and it is huge, so I don't think we need more space.

    We have some really nice gardens, islands and places to picnic as well. Depending on how outdoorsy you want to get there is somewhere to go, although places like the island are very crowded on weekends (but nice during week nights).

    What made Rouge Park so nice is that it hadn't been consumed by any mandate. Just a beautiful large, quiet space mostly ignored by planners. My wife and I would follow down a trail probably not used by more than three or four people to an area by the river. Once there, it is impossible to know that you are anywhere close to a city. In all the time we'd been going there we had never bumped into anyone else in that part. We can drive out of the city, there are other areas farther north, but this one is only half an hour from our house (on the highway). A good trail is an empty one.

    I keep thinking that the key to sustainability is diversity, not control or division. We want to encourage as many things as possible to thrive, because it is the safest course (we're more tolerant to the fickle nature of our planet). From an outside perspective (alien) there really is little difference between a plain covered in buffalo or a plain covered in a human hive. They are just large collections of animals, altering their environment and living together. Any group that becomes too dominate like dinosaurs can lead themselves into a point of extinction (one way or another).

    I think the key is that as our population doubles again, we need to find ways to keep as many different life forms going as well. Not static habitats, walled off locations, or anything segmented, but a wider more integrated ecosystem. People should be able to step out of their houses into a lush forest. Cities should merge with parks, and a huge number of species should live together in the area (our neighborhood is home to people, dogs, cats, raccoons, squirrels, skunks and who nows what else). The more diversity; the more it's allowed to change and adapt, the stronger we all are.