Advocate seeks national designation for urban forest
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If Ron Thiessen has his way, the Assiniboine Forest will someday become Winnipeg’s first national urban park, a designation that would permanently protect it from residential and commercial development.
But first, he must get the City of Winnipeg and the federal government on board.
Last August, the federal government announced a $130-million program to create or expand national parks within urban areas.
The city and the Government of Canada quickly agreed to bring the program to Winnipeg but have not yet announced which of the city’s greenspaces will receive the designation.
Thiessen, the executive director behind Manitoba’s branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), believes it should be Assiniboine Forest.
“Assiniboine Forest is a prime candidate for that,” Thiessen said. “It’s one of the largest urban greenspaces in North America… This is something we are blessed to have in the city.”
The forest occupies about 700 acres of land in southwest Winnipeg and is home to an estimated 256 plant species as well as being home to white-tailed deer, coyote, songbirds and more, according to CPAWS’ website.
According to data from the Rotary Club of Winnipeg-Charleswood, the forest hosts more than 150,000 visitors annually.
Despite being home to one of North America’s largest urban forests, Winnipeg lags behind other Canadian cities when it comes to green space. While most boast around nine per cent of established green space, only six per cent of Winnipeg’s total city area contains public parkland, Thiessen said.
“Our concern with Assiniboine Forest is it’s unprotected from unnatural development,” he said, pointing to Ottawa’s Gatineau Park as an example of how developers can set their sights on unprotected parks.
Gatineau, which sits some 16 kilometres from Ottawa’s Parliament building, has been “carved up” by housing development, shopping centres, and the creation of new roads, Thiessen said.
He fears the same fate for Winnipeg’s expansive forest.
To bolster his cause, Thiessen hosted a gathering of city council candidates, Indigenous leaders and community members in the forest Saturday afternoon. He pleaded his case to the crowd, most of whom stood in support of the cause.
Mayoral candidates Jenny Motkaluk, Rana Bokhari, Idris Adelakun, Chris Clacio and Rick Shone all endorsed Assiniboine Forest as the prime contender for the national designation.
As did Evan Duncan, Gordon Penner and Brant Field, who are running for council seats in the Charleswood-Tuxedo Westwood and River Heights-Fort Garry wards.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Shaun Loney, also running for mayor, said they support the idea of creating a national urban park in Winnipeg but questioned whether Assiniboine Forest was most deserving of the title.
Both men cited a lack of equitable access as factoring into their indecision.
“I’m here to say I am supportive of this idea of a national park… but I also want to make sure that people who live in the east in Transcona, downtown, people who live in Garden City and in River Park South can equally access an urban forest,” Ouellette said.
Loney argued there is a disparity in how green spaces are dispersed throughout the city, particularly in Winnipeg’s core.
Rather than designating an already established forest as a national park, he suggested creating a new space by reclaiming and repurposing land along the river banks in Point Douglas.
Brad Gross, running for councillor for Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood, said he thinks Assiniboine Forest should be considered for national protection but has concerns about the federal government controlling the property.
“As a realtor, I see great value in this, of course. I see a huge amount of money signs that the city could get from selling something like this,” he said. “With the downturn in the market, I think it’s a good time for the city mayors to start thinking of picking up properties.”
Gross later clarified that he would not like the city to sell the forest. Instead, he thinks Winnipeg should acquire as much land as possible and hold it until it becomes more valuable, he said.
“Too many of these councillors are going in for short-term gains — not going in for the long haul,” he said.
Thiessen said that kind of thinking is what he is trying to protect the forest from.
Only two-thirds of Winnipeg’s council would have to vote in favour of development, and the city could start parcelling off the land, he said.
As it stands, the federal government will need to approve Assiniboine Forest as a suitable space for a national urban park before anything moves forward. Thiessen could not estimate when they may come to a decision.
If the forest does fall under the national umbrella, it will be up to the city, province and federal government to decide who will govern it, Thiessen said when asked if Parks Canada would control and maintain the space.
Still, the benefits would be plenty. As a national park, it would be up for national funding, Thiessen said.
The city has previously committed to adding 1,000 acres of new greenspace to city limits in the coming decades. Thiessen hopes part of that addition could include an expansion extending south along the Trans Canada Trail and connect with FortWhyte Alive.
Updated on Tuesday, September 27, 2022 11:41 AM CDT: Clarifies context of remarks by Brad Gross