Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fighting to enjoy a green haven in the concrete jungle

Gatineau Park is located just 20 minutes north of down-town Ottawa, and is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts from all over Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec. The park itself does not have a national or provincial designation and is thus not legally protected. It is home to many of Canada's native wild species, but also to species not found anywhere else, living remnants of an earlier period in our Earth's history.

In 2004 the National Capital Commission (NCC), a Crown corporation created in 1959 to manage federal lands and buildings in the National Capital of Region of Canada, proposed to ban rock climbing in Gatineau Park. An advocacy group, the Ottawa-Gatineau Climbers' Access Coalition, was able to reach an interim agreement with the NCC which allowed climbing in certain areas of the park and curbed the development of new climbing routes. This past March the NCC released an Eco-system Conservation Plan for the park that  cuts climbing access by 90% with no changes proposed for other park uses such as hiking, cross-country skiing, or mountain biking.

Understandably, the climbing community was shocked with the news.  The Ottawa-Gatineau Climber's Access Coalition quickly took action to determine how they could work with the NCC to ease the restrictions. They provided expertise and a management plan that was endorsed by CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) which would allow access but provided impact mitigation measures addressing the NCC's ecological concerns. According to the Coalition's latest blog post in July (2010) , this has for the most part been rejected by the NCC, which continues to go ahead with implementing the restrictions.

The NCC has indicated on their site that they are pleased to be working with the Coalition and the Alpine Club of Canada in order to 'maintain rock climbing in Gatineau Park, while ensuring the integrity of the unique ecosystem that the Eardley Escarpment represents.' Cutting access from 400 sport, trad, and boulder routes to a mere 64 does not seem like 'maintaining' at all. Only five rock faces are now open to climbing:
  • Home cliff, Centre Wall
  • Western Cwm - west
  • The three rock faces at the Twin Ribs site: Down Under, Eastern Block and the Left Twin 
The NCC, however, agreed to examine four new possibilities: 
  • Permitting ice climbing
  • Evaluating access to the clifftop on two rock faces, Home Cliff — Centre Wall and Western Cwm — West (for setting anchors and top-roping)
  • Evaluate two sites for bouldering, Home Cliff Boulders and Shrine Boulders
  • Studying the possibility of adding one climbing site outside of the integral conservation zone, Western Chalet Cliffs.
But who knows how long it will take to come to a decision and if that decision will be a positive one for the Coalition and climbing community at large. 

Since Gatineau Park is uniquely faced with multiple pressures given its location and eco-diversity, the bigger problem for the climbing community may be in getting Gatineau Park official national park status. This would define its borders, legally protect it, and get it into the more capable managerial hands of Parks Canada. CPAWS has been campaigning hard for this in the last few years. They cite development as the single largest stressor on the park; development, which is largely as a result of NCC activities and permissions.

Climbers obviously love the outdoors, and it's a good bet that most respect nature. As a climber wrote in a petition to the NCC and parliament to keep climbing access in Gatineau Park: 'if no one can use the park, no one will care if it gets paved over into a parking lot'. I urge climbers and the rest of the park users to keep up the fight. We all care about nature, but we also want to be able to enjoy nature too!

Just remember, that there a few things you should keep in mind (as I am sure most of you know) when you use the park:
  • Stay on established pathways. This is especially important for mountain bikers who tend to veer around obstacles like roots, rocks, and puddles.
  • Only climb on established routes and never set anchors using trees or roots
  • Don't top out when bouldering
  • Look around for garbage you may have dropped, and take it away with you
  • If you really need to use the toilet and there are none readily available, please, please dig a hole and bury your toilet paper!
  • Consistent trail maintenance is a huge help. The Ottawa Mountain Bike Club does a great job in the South March Highlands
  • Join a club, society or association, to help support those trying to preserve, and maintain access to your favourite spots. Some links to such organizations can be found below:             

To keep up-to-date on NCC decisions with respect to rock climbing in Gatineau Park, visit:

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