Rocky Road for Canada Summer Games Mountain Bike Trail
Next August, thousands of athletes will descend on Niagara for the Canada Summer Games, the largest sporting event ever to be held in the region. The event has been delayed a year because of COVID-19 and many are pumped up to see it finally happen. But behind the scenes, nestled in a St. Catharines woods, there’s controversy about one particular event location — the mountain bike trail along Twelve Mile Creek.
The four-kilometre route is through a wooded area of Ontario Power Generation land, north of Riverview Drive in Glenridge. Eighty athletes from 13 provinces and territories will compete over its hills and windy routes. Local residents said they only found out about the planned racecourse in June through letters from Niagara 2022 Summer Games informing them there would be periodic activity for upgrades to the course, consisting of “safety and minor improvements to the trail system.”
But the Friends of Twelve Mile Creek said the work is beyond “minor” and a racecourse for high-performance athletes is being carved into the natural environment. “It’s not a trail for passive recreation use,” said Guy Graveline of Friends of Twelve Mile Creek, who made a presentation last month to Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, which regulates the area.
The group, which includes Olympic road racing silver medallist Steve Bauer, claims a significant portion of the trail did not exist before the Games got involved. It wants the mountain bike event moved to another location and has started a change.org online petition with close to 1,500 signatures calling for the work to stop.
Initially, the course was proposed to be on Brock University property, south of the OPG lands, on the Niagara Escarpment. The plan was prepared by Cycle Sport Management, Bauer’s company, but Games officials said that course didn’t become a reality because Niagara Escarpment Commission said it wasn’t allowed. Under the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Brock property is designated as escarpment natural area — a description for land in a natural state. The commission told officials bicycle trails would not be permitted under the designation as bicycles are considered “motorized vehicles.”
Canada Games looked to other options and, with input from the mountain biking community, chose the OPG-owned site and entered into a licence agreement. Games officials said there was an unofficial trail network in the area used by pedestrians and cyclists. The Games would make safety improvements to what was there.
“In terms of the natural environment, OPG has an environmental study that had been done that we reviewed before we started to design the specifics of the mountain bike trail and then we had our environmental team involved,” said Niagara Games board chair Doug Hamilton. “We had the Niagara Trail Maintenance Association, who have some environmental expertise as well involved. We had the City of St. Catharines review the plans. And so there were a number of people helping to design the course. A number of those had environmental expertise.” Hamilton said other options were looked at but none were suitable.
Bauer said when he found out in August the proposed route had changed, he walked the OPG lands with Graveline. He said while the Games team has made improvements to parts of the trail, there are new sections where rocks had been moved and accesses built. “We were shocked to think that they would build a racecourse in this area. We had difficultly navigating through the forest, the vegetation, the shrubbery, the wildlife area that had not been touched by any trail development,” he said.
“That day turned my mind around to say this is not OK. This is not correct.”
Graveline said a neighbour who backs onto a section of the woods where rocks were moved found dozens of salamanders in her pool one morning. The Friends of Twelve Mile Creek raised concerns with NPCA about possible wildlife loss, slope instability and the environmental impact, not only during the construction but when the course and its loop become used for races. NPCA director of watershed management Leilani Lee-Yates said work on the bike trails did not come to the agency’s attention until after the fact in late September when members of the public contacted them.
“It’s important to note that NPCA is not party to (the OPG and Games) agreement, nor were we involved in identifying the site,” she said during an NPCA meeting on Nov. 19. “It’s also our understanding that OPG had thought the NPCA-regulated area was contained to the water course.” NPCA staff conducted a site visit and informed the Games the work was happening in an NPCA area and was unauthorized.
NPCA asked the Games to stop work on the trail until it acquired a permit. In mid-October, she said, NPCA received information that work had resumed and issued the Games a notice of violation. Lee-Yates said the Games did stop work.
NPCA staff conducting site visits observed minor vegetation removal. The agency required a re-vegetation plan to demonstrate no net loss of natural vegetation and a restoration plan that would identify additional areas to plant after hearing concerns from the public. The permit was approved on Nov. 12 when NPCA was satisfied its requirements had been met.
“If Canada Summer Games and OPG had submitted a permit application before the beginning of the works and provided the required information to our satisfaction, staff would have supported that application as well,” Lee-Yates said.
The City of St. Catharines has long-term plans to keep the trail as part of the community. It told OPG in January it’s committed to negotiating a recreational trail use master agreement with them it. Mayor Walter Sendzik said in an interview the trail design is respectful of the natural landscape and no trees have been cut down. “OPG and Canada Games have worked very closely with the trail association and we’re going to have a naturalized asset in our community that people on mountain bikes are going to be able to enjoy for years to come,” he said.
Sendzik said it’s a small group that’s opposed to the trail who live in the area or know people who do. “While the people who abut that area have been able to enjoy their personalized space of the Twelve Mile Creek, the space will now be able to be enjoyed by many, many, many more people.”
But Ed Smith, St. Catharines’ representative on the NPCA board, said during the Nov. 19 meeting the trails should be reinstated to their natural state after the Games. The board passed a motion asking NPCA staff to send a letter to the Games “seeking a dialogue on the present trail and future condition of the site” for the bike racecourse.
Smith, who has walked the course, said in an interview discussions in good faith need to be held with all stakeholders about the environmental impacts. “What is the impact of putting a national level race course in the middle of what was more or less untouched wilderness?”
As for the land owner, OPG spokesperson Neal Kelly said it is satisfied the Games has met its obligations. “These lands are being used by the public today and have been for quite some time. We want to make sure that they’re being used appropriately, that they’re being used in an environmentally sustainable way, that public safety is paramount.”
Proponents said there’s a positive community story being overshadowed by the controversy. The volunteer group Niagara Trail Maintenance Association has been developing the mountain bike course for the Games, putting in hundreds of hours to get it ready for 2022. It started at the beginning of August and is about 70 to 80 per cent done.
Tim Breadman, chair of the association, said cyclists from all over the region have been volunteering for one cause — to create something for other community members to use. “Our volunteers have come together to do what we’ve accomplished in such a short period of time. I think that’s what the Games are about, the community coming together and people working together.”
Graveline and Bauer said they have nothing against the volunteer group, Games officials or the Games. Bauer was part of the chorus that brought the Games to Niagara. It’s just the location.
The Friends of Twelve Mile Creek wrote a letter following their presentation to the NPCA board, asking NPCA to reconsider allowing the permit. “Let’s set an example in reinforcing that conservation, preservation and restoration are essential to urban ravine survival, especially in these times of climate change,” the letter said.
“This is a ‘better way’ for the community, for the ravine and also for the city and the Games.”