Fractured trails

Goderich to Auburn Rail Trail
Kate Procter's picture
Kate Procter holds a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (OAC ’93) and a Masters of Science in Planning (OAC ’12), both from the University of Guelph. Kate currently farms in Huron County, works as a consultant, editor, and author, and has worked as a freelance journalist for almost 20 years. She has covered agricultural topics for Ontario Farmer, Better Farming, Rural Voice, National Hog Farmer, and the Stratford Beacon Herald. Kate volunteers as a board member and treasurer with the Maitland Trail Association, Crew Chief for the Celtic Roots Festival, and as Chair of the Maitland Conservation Foundation. Her past volunteer involvement includes Wingham Minor Soccer, Scouts Canada, Ontario Swine Health Advisory Board, and the Blyth Theatre. As of 2015, she volunteers as a liaison between the Maitland Trail Association and G2G. 

 

 

 

Visit our new

Features archive

 

         

Lou Holtz, a retired American football coach, once said, “When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.” I love that quote. Many of us think that applies to other people and not to ourselves. We love to pick apart the federal and provincial government for being slow to act, creating useless reports that no one ever reads, and just generally not getting things done. But every once in a while, we have to sit back, take a breath, and realize that in a democracy, “the government” is us. WE are the government. And a lot of those reports, regulations, and red tape are in place because WE demanded them. Or our behavior made them necessary.

In 1988, the Canadian Pacific Railway sold part of its property to the Province of Ontario. This line stretches 127 km from Guelph to Goderich and the province intended this railway would eventually become a trail. Over the years, several volunteer groups have leased portions of the trail and maintained them for hiking, biking, and in some cases, snowmobiling. These trailways are places of pride for their communities and bring with them many benefits. Neighbouring Bruce County boasts over 500 km of trails, which bring $24.5 million into the area every year from both county residents and tourists. Walking, biking, and jogging are listed in the top ten fitness activities – and all are well suited for outdoor trails. Rail trails, in particular, are beneficial because they are flat and as such, much more accessible to everyone than some of our more rigorous trails. But the Guelph to Goderich trailway had unleased gaps and no group has been willing to take those on until recently.

In Huron County, the Goderich to Guelph Rail Trail Inc., better known as G2G, has erupted into the public consciousness over the past few weeks. The G2G committee has worked with Huron County for several years with the goal of convincing the county to lease the gaps that were within the Huron County boundaries and allow volunteers to start work on revitalizing them. This did not happen. Eventually, the province signed the lease with G2G directly as an interim measure. And then all hell broke loose.

In spite of the fact that G2G has been actively working in the county since early 2013, no one seemed to pay much attention until G2G issued a press release announcing that G2G had signed a lease with the province, effective July 1, 2015. Suddenly, local politicians claimed they had no idea about G2G and landowners adjacent to the trail cried foul.

I think the G2G trail discussion reveals a lot about us – and should make us pause before being too critical of the government, who, let’s face it, has a tough job balancing so many interests, so many people convinced that their concerns trump everyone else’s. Society, in general, is increasingly complex. In many issues, the level of discourse becomes discouragingly negative and polarized. To keep the peace, we write more reports and take less action.

Let’s clear the air and get a few things out of the way. I have read some strange things in the paper about G2G lately. First of all, I read that G2G is a “rogue organization” that seems to have sprung up from nowhere to surprise a few of our local politicians. They seem to have no idea of who G2G is and what it is about. They refer to a “closed” process and wonder what the heck is going on. Here is a brief summary of the facts. You may find it boring. That is probably why people seemed to have missed it the first time.

  • 1988: The Canadian Pacific Railway sold the railway stretching from Guelph to Goderich in entirety, to the province – that is to say, to me, you, and everyone who lives here. The provincial government decreed that the railway would be preserved in the form of a recreational trail for everyone to enjoy. But at the provincial level, we did not want to do the work – we must have figured that a multi-million dollar donation of land was an adequate contribution – taking the plan to reality required people at a different organizational level to take responsibility.  At the provincial level, we have never wavered from the intent that this land is public space, destined to be a recreational trailway.
  • 1990 – present: The province drafted the original work plan for the trail. Various groups volunteered to take on maintenance of portions of the trailway so that people can safely enjoy this public resource. This includes the Goderich to Auburn Rail Trail (GART), the Blyth Greenway Trail, and the Kissing Bridge Trailway, which now extends 45 km from Millbank to Guelph. These groups have signed leases with the province, agreeing to maintain the trail to be used by all. The Maitland Trail Association, the Menesetung Bridge Association, and the North Huron Snowmobile Club have maintained the GART for 17 years. This is a well-used section of the G2G and is more accessible than the more rigorous Maitland Trail. It is used by hikers, geocachers, cyclists, and snowmobilers of all ages and abilities.
  • 2010: The G2G Trail Advisory Committee was born, made up of a group of hiking and biking enthusiasts – not public relations specialists. Many of them live or were born in Huron County. They are volunteers who speak of having safe places to ride bikes and hike for their kids and grandkids. G2G’s vision statement reads as follows: “Goderich to Guelph Rail Trail Inc. strives to enrich the quality of life for all people. We promote the development, preservation and enjoyment of diverse, high-quality trails and green ways that connect our southwestern Ontario communities.”
  • February 13, 2013: The Huron County Committee of the Whole heard a presentation from a representative of the G2G Trail Advisory Committee. G2G presented the vision statement, core values, volunteer board members, resources, and a “request for the County to pursue a lease of the rail bed in order for a trail to be developed and maintained by volunteers. Discussion included costs, leasing, passive and motorized uses, bridges, economic development benefits, liability and impact on agricultural uses.” As a result of this meeting, Huron County Committee of the Whole passed a motion to have staff complete a report on G2G. http://www.huroncounty.ca/cma/downloads/cotw_minutes/2013/COTW-day1-Feb13-2013.pdf
  • March 7, 2013: G2G began holding public meetings in Huron County. Today, G2G has a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. G2G sends out press releases, but it is up to the people who receive the releases to decide what to do with them. It is not a secret, private organization.
  • Fall 2013: Community consultation on active transportation began. The public was consulted using a variety of methods, including facilitated group discussions, paper and on-line surveys, and interviews with interested stakeholders.
  • May 2014: A Call to Action – Active Transportation Plan for Huron County, the active transportation report, was finalized. The report was presented to and accepted by the county’s Board of Health on June 5, 2014, and received at County Council on July 2, 2014. This report was the result of extensive community engagement in 2013. The public requested that the county support G2G, and this support is documented in several areas of the report. You can read it for yourself here: http://www.huronhealthunit.ca/health-topics/physical-activity/active-transportation/
  • July 11, 2014: Goderich to Guelph Rail Trail Inc. (G2G) became a registered charitable organization.
  • September 10, 2014: Huron County Committee of the Whole passed a motion to establish a G2G working committee to “work through the identified issues, develop a stewardship model, develop a cost and phasing model, convene a public open house, and report back to Council, be approved; and further that consideration be given in the 2015 budget for a temporary staff position to resource the G2G Working Committee.” http://www.huroncounty.ca/cma/downloads/cotw_minutes/2014/COTW-day1-Sept10-2014.pdf
  • Huron and Perth County Councils created the Huron Perth G2G Working Committee and tasked it to guide county council decision-making on trail-related issues. The G2G Trail Advisory Committee, now Goderich to Guelph Rail Trail Inc., has been invited to, and participated in, all meetings. G2G’s involvement has included arranging for testimony from adjoining landowners, stewardship groups and municipal administrators on the active portions of the trail as well as Ontario Trails Association and RTO4 to provide experienced, independent insight.
  • February 2015: G2G obtained support in both Wellington and Waterloo counties when both agreed to sign the lease with the province so that the trail could be maintained and taken care of. The Region of Waterloo pledged $40,000 to support G2G in its efforts to rebuild bridges so that the trail can continue uninterrupted.
  • On July 1, 2015 the Province of Ontario, after considerable deliberation, signed the lease with G2G as an interim measure to open all the unleased gaps for development and use. This gives G2G permission and responsibility to maintain these portions of the trail for everyone to use and enjoy.

Now that some of the facts are out of the way, I have a few thoughts. First, the elephant in the room with all of this is that the ownership of the land and its intended use was never up for discussion. The province made that decision way back in 1988. That decision has always been out of the hands of the county, the volunteers, and G2G Inc. The province, which owns the land, has never altered the initial intent of keeping the land public for the purpose of a trail.

Second, Huron County has been working with G2G for over two years. People have provided input, reports have been written, and motions passed. Yet, I keep hearing that “issues have not been addressed by G2G.” The Huron Perth G2G Working Committee painstakingly dealt with the issues landowners identified and discussed solutions. G2G is committed to working positively with landowners to solve any issues that might arise, but as yet, not one individual landowner has approached G2G with an actual problem to solve. G2G volunteers recognize, however, there is fear of the unknown. Opponents of the trail have lists of concerns that they take to news reporters, county and lower tier councils – anyone but the people who actually want to solve the problem. This is unfortunate because problems can only be solved by working together for the good of all stakeholders.

Third, it seems a bit strange to me that some people who claim to be concerned about trespassing issues think it is OK to vandalize the trail and threaten volunteers. Our stewardship group had planned to walk the trail and see what work was required – but was warned off because of threats by one or two landowners who are neighbours to the trail. Perhaps the notion of property rights only applies to a few people, not to all of us. G2G seems to be in harmony with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s policy statement on abandoned railway rights of way: “The OFA encourages the short, intermediate and long-term retention of abandoned rights-of-way by the province as an integral part of a rural redevelopment and revitalization strategy.” G2G also supports OFA’s call to put more teeth in the Trespass Act during the current provincial legislative review of Bill 100.

Fourth, insurance: I have read that landowners are concerned about their liability insurance rates going up, however, there has been no documentation provided to substantiate the claim that managed usage will incur increased costs for insurance to adjoining landowners over the current state of unmanaged use by trespassers. I am a farmer and the Maitland River runs through our farmland. It is a navigable waterway, which means the riverbed is property of the Crown. As such, everyone can use it. We have farmed here for over 60 years. Our insurance company has never once said, “hey – the river runs through your property, which gives multiple access points – cough up an additional premium for liability.” What my insurance agent did say when I asked him was that his job is to sell insurance. If I want to purchase more liability insurance because I feel more at risk, that is my decision – and he is more than happy to sell it to me. Maybe he would also be happy to sell it to people who live beside a managed and maintained trail.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, we have countless examples of railways being converted to trailways. This happens around the world. Stewards of Alberta’s Iron Horse Trail told me that developing the trail actually “protects farmers’ fields, joins small communities with common interests and it is economically beneficial to these communities.” We can just look in our own backyard. The GART, which runs from Goderich to Auburn and has done so for 17 years, is part of G2G. It works. People love it and are respectful of the land they are travelling through. The Maitland Trail uses private land, with landowner permission, and has done so for 40 years. It is also a much loved trail – so much so that our annual Camino hike, only in its third year, now is sponsored by local businesses because they can see that people, both local residents and those who come from further afield, spend money in the area on that weekend. Roughly half of the people who participate are local, the rest come from a bit farther away. Considering that Huron County leads the country in obesity rates, we should support any infrastructure that encourages healthy activities. With all the great examples of trails that exist in every part of the world, should we accept that the small portion located east of the Maitland River in Huron County is the only place on earth where people can’t figure out how to make it work?

As you can probably tell, I could go on. But let’s go back to my opening thought. Now that the province has signed the lease with G2G, the Huron Perth Working Group Committee meetings have become confrontational and disruptive. Discussions about resolving landowner issues have regressed to the point where it is clear that some landowners’ only interest is in stopping the trail completely. Who, as a volunteer, wants to continually face an angry mob that has no intention to move forward or find solutions? Huron County is planning to hire a professional facilitator and the Huron County Federation of Agriculture has at least one member, possibly two, working on this issue. After years of discussion and reports, some people publicly complain that things are moving too fast regarding a decision that was made over 25 years ago.

Really, the only decision that was ever in our hands is whether we, as Huron County, choose to be the stewards of the trail, or whether we continue to let G2G carry the torch. How much time, energy, money, and emotion will be spent trying to decide that? Deliberately ratcheting up the conflict instead of genuinely looking for workable solutions costs precious volunteer resources, organizational and taxpayer dollars, and divides our communities instead of bringing them together to solve real issues. As rural communities, we simply cannot afford this. It is time for everyone to take a breath, look around, and decide if we can have respectful discussions, sort out our differences, stop talking and get something done – or whether we will continue to depend on Big Daddy government to step in and settle our squabbles like unruly children.
 

 

Morel welcomes letters to the editor for its features section only. Letters must include an email and a phone number specifying what is the best time of day to reach the writer. Letters will be published below the articles that are referenced. You can email letters to editor@morelmag.ca