Niagara at Large, Published April 7, 2022

A Call-Out from Friends of 12 Mile Creek, a Niagara-based citizens group

Twelve Mile Creek is a study in contrasts – in some areas, one of the most natural, and in other areas, one of the most altered watersheds in Niagara.

The ravine behind Riverview Blvd. is in an altered area, however, it is a quiet and peaceful place of Creekside trails and woodland slopes.

Sadly, this ravine is being destroyed by a plan advanced and supported by the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games and the Mayor of St. Catharines for the construction of a mountain bike racecourse. 

And it has been happening right in our local community and backyards since July 2021 with consequences most people across Niagara are totally unaware about.  A valuable greenbelt area of urban forest is being converted into an athletic facility.

What is being built for the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games, is also being designed and advertised as a legacy project that will remain for generations after the Games are gone.

The result is a permanent racecourse in a Significant Woodland and Environmentally Sensitive Area, that is identified as an important biodiversity corridor in the Niagara Region Peninsula Watershed.  It connects the greenbelt in St. Catharines with the Niagara Escarpment. What is being built for the Games is already being promoted as Niagara’s First Mountain Bike Park. And we are concerned that similar racing trails will be created further along Twelve Mile Creek to the north.

The ravine bottom land supports a popular trail system running along the Creek.  That trail is enjoyed by walkers, joggers, bird watchers, nature lovers and casual cyclists. The undisturbed, delicate ravine slopes allowed the development of irreplaceable mature trees, diverse vegetation and abundant aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

But these slopes are now being destroyed to create a mountain bike park and racing centre that ignores the fact that these (north facing and wet) lands are entirely unsuitable for that purpose.  The plan was described by the Mayor in a recent article in the Niagara 2022 Games News: “This trail is a legacy piece that I hope future generations will be able to learn and embrace the sport of mountain biking. What you have created here is another trail system that can be enjoyed by cycling enthusiasts and others while also appreciating nature”.

How sadly ironic to think that we need to destroy more of our remaining natural environments so that we can appreciate the very thing we are destroying?

From the onset citizens were reassured that the course would only consist of “safety and other minor improvements to existing trails”, a narrative that was supported by the Mayor who stated there would be “no new construction”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The reality is that an entirely new trail system has been constructed by cutting into the middle and upper slopes where there was nothing but dense vegetation, trees, bushes and wildlife previously.

We are deeply concerned that the ravine has been handed over to a local mountain bike group to build the racecourse for the Games, in exchange for having it as their own playground and assuming responsibility for maintaining it after the Games are over.  We are concerned that there has been none of the usual (and required) planning for a mountain bike racecourse (environmental studies, liability, security, maintenance, restoration, enforcement of restrictions).  We are concerned at the loss of access for other trail users.  Make no mistake.  A racecourse is just that.  It is a place for competitive racers, not for casual cyclists and the general public.  This is all so blatantly wrong.

Yet for over four months 80% of the racecourse was built without the knowledge of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) and without permits; despite statements that such environmental approvals were secured. It was local residents who informed the NPCA about what was happening.

Then, after a brief investigation, the NPCA issued a questionable permit to continue building, relying upon information that was incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading, provided entirely by the Games. For example, the course work was once again described as improvements to pre-existing trails.

That was never true.

The NPCA also stated that a natural areas inventory study was used by the Games to minimize environmental damage throughout the racecourse.  However, the studied area did not include most of the racecourse area.

There has been no appropriate environmental assessment. No inventory of wildlife or species at risk for most of the racecourse area.

NPCA has categorized the racecourse use as “passive recreation”. The new trails are unlike others in this area, and they are already being promoted for racing events prior to the Games.  Mountain bike racing competitions cannot be viewed as passive recreation, according to the generally accepted definition of what passive use actually is (using the environment without damaging or permanently altering it).

Other conservations areas in southern Ontario classify mountain bike trails as active, not passive. The NPCA’s categorization was in error, and we are actively challenging it, and welcome public support in this regard as well. 

This is all so unnecessary.  As we have said, the Twelve Mile Creek valley is full of bike trails, most unofficial.  More trails are not needed and will not make any difference to the general popularity of mountain biking, or to the appreciation of nature.

In particular, racing trails should be excluded from environmentally sensitive areas. They cause greater negative impacts to soil, vegetation, and wildlife due to faster speeds, increased traction, and higher activity levels throughout. These impacts will be exacerbated by climate change, particularly since the ravine faces north, has an unstable top of slope, is often wet and muddy, and is prone to erosion and slope instability.  

In his  recent State of the Region address, Jim Bradley stated that “regional Council puts Niagara’s environment first, and …we have passed policies to make sure that as we develop more of our region, we are protecting the natural elements that make us unique”. 

This is a noble statement, and one that Niagara citizens want to believe. So what happened with 12 Mile Creek?

This is not a protest against the Games or a campaign against mountain biking.  Our opposition is about the location and the destruction of more natural habitats for the purpose of having more trails in an urban setting where there are already plenty existing ones established. 

We question why the Games chose a specific urban, residential setting to build a racecourse, when, as a general rule most mountain bike courses are situated in non-residential rural settings within a sports infrastructure.  We continue to question why the Games did not finalize plans to hold it on Brock lands.

We question why there has been a total disregard and respect for the residents in the local community who were “told” this was happening; not consulted in the true sense of the word, before building started. 

We are being characterized as NIMBYs because we are creating awareness across Niagara of what is happening. The truth is that most people are not aware that the location was changed from the Brock lands, which was the original location until 2021.  We can see what is happening in our backyards and we have decided to do something about it.  And to tell others.

We have just launched a website — https://www.friendsof12milecreek.com/, as a means to “tell our story” and to share facts, information and visual evidence of the environmental damage.  On our website you will see a section — What You Can Do, and Advocacy Toolkit, where we list things that you can do to have your voice heard and be an agent of change, and where you can sign up as a member. 

With climate change, a biodiversity crisis and environmental degradation challenging our future, the Region and the City of St. Catharines has been encouraging its citizens to respect the environment.  We, as citizens, encourage them to do the same. There is a better way to both service the Games and to preserve the ravine.

This is an opportunity to “change the course” from exploitation to conservation.  An opportunity to confirm that St. Catharines cares about its neighbourhoods, about citizens’ quality of life, and about environmental issues.  The 12 Mile Creek ravine is not a racecourse.  It should not be the home for Niagara’s first mountain bike park.

Friends of 12 Mile Creek
https://www.friendsof12milecreek.com/

To read this article as it was published online, click here 

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