Nature is reeling: What happens when more Ontarians head outdoors?

Public-health restrictions have boosted interest in outdoor activity — and experts say that could threaten the health of environmentally sensitive areas
By Mary Baxter - Published on Feb 22, 2021
Kaitlin Richardson is president of the Thames Talbot Land Trust. (Mary Baxter)

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LONDON — Every Saturday, Kaitlin Richardson walks her dogs, Lily and Luna, in Meadowlily, a stretch of forest threaded with trails along the Thames River in southeast London. The area has always been popular with locals seeking a nature fix, but never more so than since the arrival of COVID-19.

“It's been very busy,” says Richardson, a biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada and president of the Thames Talbot Land Trust, a non-profit land conservancy that owns one section of the area, called Meadowlily Nature Preserve (an adjacent section, the environmentally significant Meadowlily Woods, is city-owned). “There are so many people going through there that the snow is compacted, like, instantly, after a snowfall,” she says.

Public-health restrictions have boosted interest in outdoor activity, and conservation organizations are seeing increases in the number of visitors to the properties they protect — about a 50 per cent increase in trail use along certain areas of the Bruce Trail, estimates a spokesperson with the Bruce Trail Conservancy. And that rise in traffic, experts say, is threatening the health of these often environmentally sensitive areas.

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a person with a walking stick at the entrance to a snowy trail
At the entrance to Meadowlily Woods. (Mary Baxter)

“It is really, really cool that people are discovering the amazing natural world that is right on their doorstep,” says Mhairi McFarlane, NCC’s director of science and stewardship, Ontario region, noting that studies show that connecting with nature can boost mood, reduce stress, and improve physical health.

The challenge comes “where there's people that maybe haven't experienced the natural world before or haven't learned to appreciate it quite in the way that we might prefer,” she says, adding that people may forget or be unaware of the fact that they are among “sometimes hundreds of other people also trying to visit and experience the natural world that day or that week or that weekend.”

Not knowing the rules, some visitors leave trash behind, allow their dogs to run loose or walk off-trail, disrupt wildlife — such as birds that nest on the ground — and trample on sensitive plants, McFarlane and other non-profit conservationists say. People inadvertently spreading invasive plant species is of considerable concern because of the long-term environmental effects: “We have a hard enough time as it is trying to manage non-native invasive plants on our property; they get moved around naturally by squirrels and turkeys and things like that, but having people with vehicles and dogs adding to that can be a big problem,” McFarlane says. “That can be a real nightmare for us, to keep on top of managing those new outbreaks of invasive species.”  

Andrea Olive, chair of the political-science department at the University of Toronto Mississauga and a specialist in wildlife and protected-areas policies, says that the province wasn’t prepared to deal with the large volumes of people seeking recreation in nature during the pandemic — and that, as a result, these areas may lack sufficient infrastructure, such as garbage cans and public washrooms.

For years, she’s been visiting the 47-kilometre Elora Cataract Trailway, near Guelph. Previously, she says, there were very few people around, but, during COVID-19, “it's insane busy … and one thing to note is there's no bathrooms — that's a problem if you're going to have a whole bunch of people and children come out to the area."

“People are really not behaving very well,” Olive adds. “Throwing their masks, throwing their gloves on the ground. Maybe there needs to be more garbage [cans] — or maybe you could just carry it back to your car.”

footsteps in the snow behind a fence
The Meadowlily Nature Preserve is owned by the Thames Talbot Land Trust. (Mary Baxter)

Raymond Soucy, chair of the Elora Cataract Trailway Association, says that, in warmer weather pre-pandemic, it would often rent a portable washroom and install it at one entrance but that public-health recommendations for enhanced cleaning protocols and service intervals would be challenging for it to follow. “It gets pretty complicated, right?” he says. “We're just a volunteer group; we do what we can.”

The NCC, which stewards 37,500 hectares in southern Ontario, is planning to improve signage by adding explanations as to why some activities are prohibited, says McFarlane. She points to the example of London, which has introduced more signage to the entrance to the city’s 11 publicly accessible environmentally significant areas. “They have some really nice signs up,” she says, referring to signs at an ESA in the city’s south end that provide information about birds and explain why dogs need to be kept on leash.

"We are working on our own education campaign as well," says Adam Brylowski, manager of conservation and trail at the Bruce Trail Conservancy. Social media will feature prominently, he says, and focus on explaining the environmental impacts connected with overuse on the trail.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks tells TVO.org via email that regular educational programming is ongoing and that online supports —  such as this information sheet about how to mitigate the spread of invasive species while hiking —  are available. The intent is to “encourage sustainable and respectful use of our provincial parks and conservation reserves,” he says. "During this unprecedented time, we implemented measures to address overcrowding and promote physical distancing in our park spaces and buildings during busy visitation times by limiting occupancy for day-use and camping in select provincial parks."

Some parks are also limiting occupancy for day-use and camping, he adds, and limiting the number of people allowed to use a facility at one time.

Richardson says the Thames Talbot Land Trust isn’t prepared to close off access to the Meadowlily Nature Preserve except in the case of a public-safety issue: "Mental health in nature is one of our pillars, so allowing people to enjoy the property and not restricting them is another key component of that.”

Since the pandemic, the trust has offered webinars and other online events, she says. But, she adds, its four staff members already find it challenging to monitor and maintain its 20 nature reserves, half of which are open to the public. “It costs a lot of money for a charity like Thames Talbot Land Trust to send staff out, to fix the trail, when they would way rather spend that money on buying a new piece of conservation land,” Richardson explains. For now, it’s relying on volunteers to keep an eye on some of their more rural properties.

“It's not as bad in the winter for [damage], but once spring hits and people are avoiding where other people are walking [off trail] to avoid mud and things like that, then you get into tracking invasive species around and stepping on spring ephemerals [such as jack in the pulpits, wild ginger and wild leeks],” she says. "It becomes a really big management issue.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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