Next August, thousands of athletes will descend on Niagara for the Canada Summer Games, the region’s largest sporting event ever.
The event has been delayed for a year due to COVID-19 and many are eager to see it finally happen.
But behind the scenes, tucked away in a St. Catharines woodland, there’s controversy about one particular event location – the mountain bike trail along Twelve Mile Creek.
The four kilometer route traverses a forested area of Ontario Power Generation lands, north of Riverview Drive in Glenridge. Eighty athletes from 13 provinces and territories will compete on its hills and windy roads.
Local residents said they only discovered the planned racetrack until June through letters from the Niagara 2022 Summer Games advising them that there would be periodic course improvement activities, including in “safety and minor improvements to the trail system”.
But the Friends of Twelve Mile Creek said the work is beyond “minor” and that a racetrack for top athletes is being dug into the natural environment.
“This is not a passive recreational trail,” said Guy Graveline of Friends of Twelve Mile Creek, who gave a presentation last month to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, which regulates the area.
The group, which includes Olympic road racing silver medalist Steve Bauer, claim that a significant part of the track did not exist before the Games were involved. He wants the mountain biking event to be moved to another location and has started an online change.org petition with nearly 1,500 signatures calling for a stop.
Initially, it was proposed that the course be held on the Brock University property, south of the OPG lands, on the Niagara Escarpment. The plan was prepared by Cycle Sport Management, Bauer’s company, but Games officials said the course did not become a reality because the Niagara Escarpment Commission said it was not authorized.
Under the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Brock property is designated as an Escarpment Natural Area – a description of land in its natural state. The commission told authorities that cycle paths would not be allowed under the designation, as bicycles are considered “motor vehicles”.
Canada Games considered other options and, with input from the mountain biking community, selected the OPG-owned site and entered into a licensing agreement. Games officials said there was a network of unofficial trails in the area used by pedestrians and cyclists.
The Games would bring security improvements to what was there.
“With regard to the natural environment, OPG did an environmental study which we looked at before we started to design the details of the mountain bike trail, and then we engaged our environmental team,” said the chairman of the board. Niagara Games Director Doug Hamilton.
“We had the Niagara Trail Maintenance Association, which also has some environmental expertise. We have asked the City of St. Catharines to review the plans. And so there were a number of people who helped design the course. A number of them had environmental expertise.
Hamilton said other options had been considered but none were appropriate.
Bauer said when he found out in August that the proposed route had changed, he traveled through OPG lands with Graveline.
He said that while the Games team have made improvements to parts of the trail, there are new sections where boulders have been moved and accesses constructed.
“We were shocked to think that they were going to build a racetrack in this area. We struggled to navigate through the forest, the vegetation, the shrubs, the wildlife area that had not been affected by any trail development, ”he said.
“That day I changed my mind to say it wasn’t OK. It’s not correct.
Graveline said a neighbor leaning against part of the wood where rocks had been moved found dozens of salamanders in his pool one morning.
The Friends of Twelve Mile Creek have raised concerns with the NPCA about the possible loss of wildlife, instability of slopes and environmental impact, not only during construction, but when the course and its loop. are used for races.
NPCA’s watershed management director Leilani Lee-Yates said work on the bike lanes only came to the agency’s attention after the fact, in late September, when members of the public had contacted them.
“It is important to note that the NPCA is not a party to the (OPG and the Games) agreement, and we were not involved in the identification of the site,” she said during an NPCA meeting on November 19.
“We also understand that OPG believed the NPCA regulated area was limited to the watercourse.
NPCA staff carried out a site visit and informed the Games that construction was taking place in an area of the NPCA and was not authorized.
The NPCA has called on the Games to stop work on the trail until it obtains a permit. In mid-October, she said, the NPCA received reports that work had resumed and issued the Games a notice of violation.
Lee-Yates said the Games had stopped working.
NPCA staff on site visits observed minor vegetation removal. The agency needed a revegetation plan to demonstrate no net loss of natural vegetation and a restoration plan that would identify additional areas for planting after hearing public concerns.
The permit was approved on November 12 when the NPCA was satisfied its requirements had been met.
“If the Canada Summer Games and OPG had submitted a permit application before work began and provided the required information to our satisfaction, staff would have supported this application as well,” said Lee-Yates.
The Town of St. Catharines has long term plans for the trail to become part of the community. She told OPG in January that she was committed to negotiating a framework agreement with them on the use of recreational trails.
Mayor Walter Sendzik said in an interview that the design of the trail is respectful of the natural landscape and that no trees have been felled.
“OPG and the Canada Games have worked closely with the trail association and we will have a naturalized asset in our community that mountain bikers can enjoy for years to come,” he said.
Sendzik said they were a small group opposed to the trail who either live in the area or know people who live there.
“While those adjacent to this area were able to enjoy their personalized Twelve Mile Creek space, the space will now be able to be enjoyed by many, many, many more people.”
But Ed Smith, St. Catharines representative on the NPCA board of directors, said at the Nov. 19 meeting that the trails should be restored to their natural state after the Games. The board passed a motion asking NPCA staff to send a letter to the Games “seeking dialogue on the current trail and future state of the site” for the racetrack.
Smith, who has followed the route, said in an interview that good faith discussions need to take place with all stakeholders on environmental impacts.
“What is the impact of putting a national level running course in the middle of a more or less unspoiled wilderness?” “
As for the landowner, OPG spokesperson Neal Kelly said he was confident the Games had fulfilled their obligations.
“These lands are used by the public today and have been for some time. We want to make sure that they are used appropriately, that they are used in an environmentally sustainable manner, that public safety is paramount.
Supporters said a positive community history was overshadowed by controversy. The Niagara Trail Maintenance Association volunteer group developed the mountain bike course for the Games, taking hundreds of hours to get it ready for 2022. It started in early August and finished at around 70-80. %.
Tim Breadman, president of the association, said cyclists from across the region have volunteered for a cause: to create something that other members of the community can use.
“Our volunteers have come together to do what we have accomplished in such a short time. I think that’s the purpose of the Games, the community comes together and people work together.
Graveline and Bauer said they had nothing against the volunteer group, the Games officials or the Games. Bauer was part of the choir that brought the Games to Niagara.
It’s just the location.
The Friends of Twelve Mile Creek wrote a letter following their presentation to the NPCA board of directors, asking the NPCA to reconsider the authorization of the permit.
“Let us lead by example by reinforcing the fact that conservation, preservation and restoration are essential to the survival of urban ravines, especially in these times of climate change,” the letter reads.
“It’s a ‘better way’ for the community, for the ravine and also for the city and the Games. ”