As you read this, a quiet crusade is underway. Its leaders are residents of Wolfe Island, a rural community nestled in the current where Lake Ontario becomes the St. Lawrence River.
You have never heard their names before, never seen their groups at conferences or workshops. And while their story has no villains to capture your imagination and arouse your sympathy, you should be telling the tale of the Wolfe Islanders for generations to come.
In Southern Ontario, 75% of wetlands have been lost because of human activities like draining and infilling. The remaining 25% of wetlands are stressed because of pollution, regulated water levels, and encroachment. Since the settlement of the first Europeans, areas like the Toronto-Niagara stretch of Lake Ontario’s north shore have lost nearly all original coastal wetlands.
The Wolfe Islanders’ story is the line in the sand. The Wolfe Island Wetland Corridor will be a two-kilometre (1.24 mile) long expanse of aquatic habitat for fish and wildlife. It will replace the overgrown canal that bisected the island from the late 1800s until 1932. The Wetland Corridor will also repair the cattail plug caused by a half-century of water level regulation.
Like all wetland restoration projects, the Wolfe Island Wetland Corridor will provide much-needed spawning areas for fish, staging areas for birds, and help to improve local water quality. The Wetland Corridor is unique because it represents the future of Lake Ontario as envisioned by one of its oldest communities: a Wild Lake Ontario.
For more than 2,000 years, humans have fished from Wolfe Island. Its fishery has been a symbol of the Island’s incredible natural wealth. First, there were the Point Peninsula, the Owasco, and the Iroquois First Nations.Then came the French, the Empire Loyalists, the Irish, and the Dutch. Each successive wave of settlement introduced its own culture, religion, and language to the Island. And every wave of settlement had one activity in common: fishing.
The waters of Wolfe Island support one of the last remaining commercial fisheries on Lake Ontario. They nurture fish and fowl for Islanders,many who still rely on the local ecosystem for their daily meals. The beaches, marshes, and open water also provide enchantment for the thousands of visitors that flock to the island each summer.
The natural wealth of Wolfe Island is not lost on Canada’s business or political communities. There have been several attempts to develop the old canal in the past, including failed proposals in the 1960s and late 1980s. One of the more recent designs was pegged at $5-million.
This time, a wildlife biologist is helping the community restore the wetland. The Islanders are confident that his science-based approach will cost a whole lot less – in the neighborhood of $200,000 – and create better aquatic habitat than previous proposals.
Remarkably, about 90% of the wetland would be on privately owned land. The support of these landowners is essential to the success of the project, and partnerships are being fostered through negotiation and dialogue – there is no talk of expropriation. This project, designed by the community, will benefit each member of the community.
The Islanders are,however, at the beginning of a long journey.This is a “bottom-up” project, spearheaded by local residents rather than politicians. The project design must be finalized. The municipality must be persuaded to allow partial reconstruction of a highway that plugs up the northwest entrance to the would-be wetland. Regulatory approvals must be secured. Private landowners must be educated and included. Funds must be raised to pay for the wetland. All of these things must be done, and done by ordinary folks without salary, and without experience.
There is a definite sense that the experts don’t think we can do it. There is an equally definite sense that everyone hopes we can. Lake Ontario needs the Wolfe Island Wetland Corridor just as much as the Islanders need it themselves, and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is committed to helping them wherever possible.
The magic of the Wetland Corridor is that it is no tamed-down re-creation of Lake Ontario, no petting zoo for fish and fowl. It defies all the rules of development. There is no human-centric focus. It is not designed for the sole benefit of an interest group or property owner. It rebels against the traditional cost-benefit formulas.
Yet, the value of the Wolfe Island Wetland Corridor and the dedication of the Islanders are unmistakable. Inspired by Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations before them, these unlikely activists are launching a new chapter of restoration and enhancement.With the aid of the Islanders,Wild Lake Ontario can be returned: It is a rare gift.
To read biologist Doug Howell’s proposal for restoring and enhancing the old Wolfe Island canal, please visit www.waterkeeper.ca.