Moore Park - Brick Works

Butternuts and Switchbacks

Butternut Tree

Mention the Chorley Park Switchback in the company of those who frequent our ravines and you can expect an immediate reaction. Eyebrows raise, smirks appear or scowls form, mouths open and hang in hesitation while the owner considers just how much of a rant they are willing to commit themselves to. The switchback is one of those "hot button issues," and a point of deep, personal contention for many.

The slope that runs from Rosedale's Chorley Park down to the Beltline Trail in Moore Park Ravine has sported several trails over the last few decades. Dirt trails, pounded down by hikers and runners, have criss-crossed through the burdock, sedges and sumacs that dominate the hill. An asphalt trail once carved its own course through, but was washed away in a severe storm some twenty-five years ago. An old, worse-for-wear staircase lingers in the shade on the eastern side of the site, victimized by years of intense use. So it was hardly surprising when, in 2012, the City began to ruminate on the trail infrastructure along the slope. What did seem to take many by surprise, however, was the magnitude of what the City would propose.

A switchback is a type of trail that weaves its way back and forth across a grade, aiming to offer a much more measured incline than would be afforded by the natural slope. Logistically, the primary benefit of such a trail is that it allows people to move through the area more easily, of particular advantage to cyclists and the disabled. Of course, such a trail is also far more obtrusive, occupying much greater land than the footprint a more direct path would require. If such gross differences were the only considerations, the Chorley Park Switchback would likely have proven a much more amicable concern. The devil, however, is always in the details.

Some folks accuse local residents of egregious NIMBYism, claiming that opposition to the switchback is being fueled by an elitist desire to keep the riff-raff out of Rosedale. Others see a conspiracy lead by the nearby Evergreen Brick Works, an effort to further popularize what they cite as a den of yuppy environmentalism. Some bemoan the loss of a treasured toboggan run, and the thousands of childhood memories it inspires. Others speak of aggressive prep work already done on the site, which resulted in removal of a significant inventory of saplings and small trees (albeit the vast majority of which were invasives, or trees likely to have perished under emerald ash borers, dutch elm disease, and similar threats.) Insufficient public consultation, failure to recognize the need for strong erosion control measures, severe over-engineering, lack of appreciation for how the site falls in to Toronto's city-wide ravines and trail strategy - the points and counterpoints made by the various factions embroiled in the debate is nearly as exhaustive as the species of plants and animals you'd find here during an afternoon stroll.

Stuck in the middle of all this, literally, are the Chorley Park butternuts. The butternut (Juglans cinerea) is a slow-growing and somewhat short-lived species of walnut, usually found only in small groups, and really quite rare here in the city. Many small mammals and birds are known to incorporate butternut into their diet wherever it is available. It is regarded as an important native food source by First Nations people as its nut is high in omega-3 fatty acids and can be stored for years. Similarly, virtually every part of the tree has a role in traditional natural medicine.

Sadly, butternut is also an endangered species. It is being devastated by a severe fungal disease known as Butternut Canker, and roughly a third of those in Ontario have already perished. There is no known cure, but roughly 3% of butternuts show some degree of resistance, giving some hope that the population may recover assuming tolerant specimens can be used to sire future generations. Botanists and conservation authorities are working to develop and execute recovery plans, but the process is long and arduous, and greatly depends on finding the most tolerant specimens possible.

While the trees here are defended by Ontario's Endangered Species Act, and further by Toronto's own ravine bylaws, such protection is pretty much conceptual. Laws don't prevent misuse, carelessness and ignorance. Very few folks know a butternut to see one, and as a result many of the footpaths that currently litter the slope carve within arm's length of these precious trees. Bikes get chained to them, eroding their bark. Dogs "do their business" in immediate proximity which, despite what many people think, is actually quite harmful. Casual human activity carries consequences, and relying on bylaws, signs, and conscience constantly proves itself a very weak remedy.

Protecting our remaining butternuts is, simply put, a matter of life and death. Whatever happens with the Chorley Park Switchback, the preservation of the butternuts there should be of the utmost importance. The design of the final trail must account for the known activities on the slope, and physically dissuade irresponsible use. Minimizing the footprint of the trail is, obviously, a highly desirable outcome, but minimizing the damage of a hundred-thousand human footprints must take precedence. All parties need to abandon easy answers in favour of the best solution.

Posted on: August 8, 2015