Features

To Restore a Masterpiece

Alumnus Jim Robb has laboured for more than 25 years to help protect the Rouge watershed. Now that Parks Canada is on-board, his vision for the region is nothing less than spectacular.

Andrew Westoll
Jim Robb.

Conservationist Jim Robb.

To walk through a forest with conservationist Jim Robb (BSc, 1978) is to be given a first-class education. Even here, in a nondescript section of Rouge Park, a short walk from the Morningside Heights neighbourhood in Scarborough and just a few paces into the bush from a cement road, Robb’s botanical knowledge is able to flourish.

“This is a blue beech. Some call it musclewood because it looks like the muscles in a tennis player’s arm.”

“Here’s some wild ginger, a native to the region. The First Nations and early pioneers used it to spice their food”

“Hickory wood is so strong and tough it was used to make lacrosse sticks and baseball bats and farm instruments.”

No matter where he looks, Robb sees countless living things worth highlighting—and protecting. Robb is the co-founder and general manager of Friends of the Rouge Watershed (FRW), a charitable organization dedicated to the restoration of the Rouge river ecosystem. Along with a small army of colleagues, co-conspirators and confidantes—many of whom share his deep ties to the University of Toronto Scarborough—Robb has spent the last 25 years advocating for this quiet, yet biologically wondrous, corner of east Toronto, a place known to those who love it as simply ‘the Rouge.’

“There are more than 700 species of native plants here,” says Robb, as he leads us away from the road and deeper into dappled shadows. “There [are] more than 50 species of fish in the river system, including nationally rare species like the redside dace. The Rouge has more than 95 per cent of all the tree species that occur in Ontario—and this is just a tiny sliver of the province.”

We emerge from the trees to a majestic sight. Far below, the Rouge River takes a hairpin turn to the west. Millennia of erosion have created an impressive bluff, more than 40 metres high, upon which we now stand. This is the Finch Meander, a place judged by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to be an Area of National Scientific Interest (ANSI) for its geological and biological heritage. These bluffs date to before the last glacial period, which means a researcher armed with soil samples from here could map out the history of vegetation in the region across more than 100,000 years.

“If you were to go down there,” says Robb, “you’d be in the middle of an old-growth forest. You’d see two- or three-foot-diameter black maple, sugar maple, hemlock, beech, hickory, sycamores. Two hundred thousand years ago, there were probably sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths walking this area.”

The Finch Meander is sacred ground for Robb and many others who have worked tirelessly for decades on behalf of the Rouge. On March 26, 1990, Premier David Peterson came to this very spot to announce the creation of the Rouge Park, thereby protecting 47 square kilometres of mixed woodland plains, highly endangered Carolinian forests and delicate wetlands on Toronto’s border with Pickering. It was a dream none would have thought possible just a few years earlier, as urban developers were hell-bent on turning this swath of wilderness into yet another endless series of subdivisions.

And now, another dream is about to be fulfilled. In its 2011 Speech from the Throne, the federal government announced it will transform Rouge Park into Canada’s first national urban park.
Under the aegis of Parks Canada, the Rouge will join an elite group of protected areas that include such heralded names as Banff, Wood Buffalo, Nahanni and Gros Morne. Many millions of Canadians will soon awaken to the surprising fact that the eastern Greater Toronto Area is actually home to one of our country’s true ecological gems.

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It is no surprise that a green activist like Robb is an alumnus of UTSC. Indeed, the modern movement to protect the Rouge can trace its beginnings to this campus. In the mid-1970s, a group of concerned citizens and academics began meeting at Scarborough College, as UTSC was known back then, to discuss ways of mobilizing local opposition to the impending development of the Rouge Valley. Among this small but passionate cabal were the late UTSC sociology professor Bob James and his wife, Lois, whom Robb describes as the grandmother and original mentor of the movement to save the Rouge (to learn more about Lois James, see “Lois of the Rouge” on page XX).

Robb grew up near Lawrence and Midland avenues in Scarborough, and he would often ride his bike and hike in the Rouge. “As a young naturalist I would just marvel at the biological diversity.” And when he was an undergraduate at UTSC, the Rouge Valley and Highland Creek were his outdoor laboratories. “We did lots of botanical and ecological studies, checked water quality, did insect surveys, you name it.”

Robb joined the movement to save the Rouge in 1986, volunteering up to 40 hours a week while squeezing in time to run his urban forestry business on the side. As a volunteer he worked with many UTSC alums, including Kevin O’Connor (now the president of FRW), wildlife artist and conservationist Paul Harpley (see “Spotlight” on page XX) and noted environmentalist and Toronto City Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (MA, 1986). The young De Baeremaeker first rose to political prominence as president of the movement’s original advocacy group, Save the Rouge Valley System (SRVS).

Robb isn’t surprised UTSC turned out so many like-minded advocates. “I remember an old forester telling me that if you don’t spend a long time working persistently in one area, and you don’t get to know that area and the communities, the environment, the species, the politics of it, then it’s really hard to make a difference. Over the years, hundreds of UTSC grads have been involved in this. The magic of the Save the Rouge project is that it’s a community thing.”

It was in 1991, when the Rouge officially became a park, that Robb and his wife Cathy Gregorio (BSc, 1994) sat down with some friends in their living room and came up with the idea for FRW. “We wanted to plant trees, help rebuild the wetlands, educate adults and children about the Rouge and give input to the park planning process,” says Robb. “I remember saying to Glenn [De Baeremaeker] and SRVS, ‘You guys be the watchdog. We’ll be the sled dog.’ ”

Since then, FRW has planted over 600,000 native trees and wildflowers, involving more than 45,000 student, community and corporate volunteers in restoring more than 3 million square metres of the watershed. It is now impossible to drive one of roads that crisscross the Rouge watershed and not pass a wetland or young forest that FRW and its volunteers have helped to restore. The group has managed this by leveraging an array of partnerships with government and environmental organizations, including Environment Canada’s Great Lakes Sustainability Fund, the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defence, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Evergreen, Hillside Outdoor Education School, the City of Toronto, the Town of Markham, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the Rouge Park Alliance, which currently oversees the management of the park.

According to Robb, FRW is planting more than just trees and flowers. “We’re planting the seeds of conservation in the next generation. That has always been our strategy. We plant trees, but we also plant things spiritually and intellectually in people’s hearts and minds. Just like a forest, there has to be a succession of leaders and conservation advocates and wilderness protectors, so that once the leaders of today are retired and gone, there will be a strong contingent of young people, young trees, coming up to fill our place.”

A number of UTSC biology professors, such as Dr. Rudy Boonstra, have been using Rouge Park as an outdoor teaching laboratory even before Jim Robb attended the university. “I’ve been taking students on field trips into the Rouge for 35 years,” says Boonstra. “There they can learn about tree succession across different topographical profiles and conduct vegetation analyses on an actual forest. It’s a marvelous way to give students real-world experience in a relatively unmanipulated ecosystem, to expose them to things they’ve probably never seen anywhere else.”

Last year, UTSC’s historical role as the birthplace of the movement to protect the Rouge watershed took on a modern twist. The university signed a memorandum of understanding with Parks Canada, positioning the campus as the primary education and research partner with the future Rouge National Urban Park.

According to vice-principal (research) and biology professor Malcolm Campbell, this collaboration is a natural fit, highlighting the campus’s growing reputation as a world-renowned centre for environmental science. “UTSC is located at the very interface between the urban and natural worlds, both geographically speaking and in terms of our scientific and educational mandates,” says Campbell. “This partnership will provide our researchers and student body with a multi-dimensional ecological and cultural resource at our very doorstep, a place of wilderness and wonder where the ecological stewards and natural scientists of tomorrow will receive a world-class education.”

Robb also sees enormous potential in UTSC's involvement. “I’ve worked most of my life to get good science integrated into the policy-making process, so that decisions are made rationally and soundly,” he says. “We are really excited to begin working on research projects with UTSC that will assist Parks Canada in taking a scientific and intelligent approach to long-range planning.”

Robb deflects much of the praise for recent successes on the Rouge toward federal MPs Pauline Browse and Michael Chong, chair of the Rouge Park Alliance Alan Wells, Minister of the Environment Peter Kent and Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty. “They deserve most of the credit for getting national park status.” But that doesn't mean Robb is short on grand visions for the new park.

“Imagine being able to hike all the way from Lake Ontario to the Oak Ridges Moraine. Imagine small museums along the way describing the history of the region and the struggle to protect it,” says Robb. “Imagine a network of B&Bs, working organic farms and modest trailheads leading people from the Rouge Beach all the way to the Trans Canada Trail, and then back again.”

These new dreams are, for the moment, just dreams. And while Robb works towards achieving them, the core of his work with FRW will always be to get young people out into nature, shovels in hand.

“What we tell kids at planting sessions is this. We are painting a mural. Our shovel and trowel are our paintbrushes, and our colour palette consists of different species of native trees, shrubs, flowers and seeds. We’re going to plant this landscape as if it is our canvas. Then Mother Nature will take over and turn it into a masterpiece.”