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nature perspective in PIRGspectives

Back when Cootes Drive was constructed, it was cutting edge. 60 years later we need to re-examine the need for the road and look toward what might be rescued from beneath the asphalt.

COOTES: Drive Through Paradise?

By Randy Kay (Transportation for Liveable Communities)
published in PIRGSPECTIVES Spring 2003 (OPIRG McMaster zine)

McMaster students, staff and faculty looking for an escape to nature are fortunate to be able to access Cootes Paradise, an 840 ha wildlife sanctuary containing a 250 ha coastal marsh, just a few steps from campus buildings on the North side of campus.

Narrow footpaths follow the contour of a class A wetland. Patient bird-watchers are rewarded with a stunning array of species including (at the large end of the spectrum) swans, blue herons, osprey and wood ducks and on down to the small chatty red- winged blackbirds and marsh wrens.

So why is there a road running through it?

Cootes Drive was constructed in 1936. It is a 3.1 kilometer stretch of four lane, 80km/hr expressway, located at the western extremity of Cootes Paradise.

A mere 2 minute drive from end to end, but a drive which regularly results in an alarming amount of road kill.

Perhaps the most stark juxtaposition is the one that pits cars and trucks against turtles. Our ancient, slow moving friends are not faring well living in proximity to the road. Females turtles looking for a sandy embankment where they can lay their eggs often end up traversing the four lane road; many never make it across. Tiny hatchlings eagerly scuttling toward the marsh are run over by cars, many become trapped by the raised median, where, if not killed by traffic, they bake to death in the sun.
The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) has done road kill studies on Cootes Drive. An example of their findings: in a period between April 21 and September 9, 1999 road kill on Cootes claimed 1,159 American Toads, 74 Snapping Turtles, 68 Frogs (17 Northern Leopard Frogs, 7 Green Frogs, and 44 unidentified frogs), 24 Snakes (13 Eastern Garter, 6 Northern Brown, and 4 unidentified) and 11 Midland Painted Turtles, 1 Blanding's Turtle and 2 unidentified turtles.

A similar time frame in 2001 turned up 40 dead mammals including 3 Raccoons, 3 Eastern Cottontail, and one each of Grey Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, Little Brown Bat, Meadow Vole, Norway Rat, Red Fox, Virginia Opossum, and a White-Tailed Deer.

These brutal outcomes are, after all, to be expected where you have a road running through a nature preserve, but does it have to be this way always?

Take the road out and what would you have? A significant marsh habitat supporting species diversity extending to the heart of Dundas, an inviting natural environment for residents of Dundas and Hamilton.

The natural flood plain would be restored, and Spencer Creek could be returned to its natural meandering path, rescued from the channelized path it currently takes.

The noise from traffic which currently disturbs the natural beauty of Cootes Paradise would be greatly reduced, giving a more full aesthetic experience to the budding philosophers, poets, and naturalists at McMaster, indeed, for anyone who wants to experience the calming, soul restoring power of the natural world.

Charles Durand, a local naturalist, wrote in 1818-19 that, Cootes Paradise "was a paradise for game of all kinds. Immense flocks of ducks and wildfowl and wild animals innumerable in old times were seen there. It was also the resort of wild fur animals, such as otter, perhaps beaver, fisher, minks and especially muskrats; snakes were abundant there of all kinds". (http://www.rbg.ca/fwhrp/cootes/cootes_pg1.htm)

Would people be willing to give up a road to gain a wetland sanctuary? That remains to be seen. Currently, however, McMaster University seems intent upon facilitating the paving of more and more of the local terra firma, accommodating an ever expanding demand for parking spaces for those who choose to drive to campus.

Despite the University's "Balanced Transportation Strategy" stated goal of maintaining parking supply at the current level of approximately 4500 spaces, there are plans to build an $11.5 million parking structure on campus as well as plans for a parking area at Cootes and Olympic Drive in Dundas.

Parking lot expansion encroaching upon Cootes Paradise will only exacerbate traffic conditions on Cootes Drive which already has a total traffic volume of 30,916 trips a day. (City of Hamilton Traffic Volumes, 1999)

Rather than working to protect and enhance it's unique natural setting, by catering to drivers McMaster perpetuates the conditions that will see a steady decline in quality of life as cars continue to overrun the planet.

So, in the spirit of thinking globally and acting locally, deepening our connection with Mother Earth while kicking the car habit, why not lend your talents to efforts to have Cootes Drive removed in favour of expanding and enhancing Cootes Paradise: after all, there is a whole world of work to be done.

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