“The best way to summarize this is that the Torrance Barrens is being loved to death.” This was the point made by Mike Nageleisen, who represented the Torrance Barrens Working Group in a deputation at the April 12 Gravenhurst Committee of the Whole meeting.
Nageleisen said the purpose of his visit was to bring council up to speed on the work they have been doing, share possible recommendations and to garner input. Many concerns have been raised but Nageleisen wanted to highlight a few to council and, “some of the things we want to do to improve the situation.”
The Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve is a conservation area and dark-sky preserve. It consists of Crown Lands in the municipalities of Gravenhurst and Muskoka Lakes. It is notable as the first dark-sky preserve in Canada and for its geological and environmental features.
The main concerns that have been raised are fire risk, camping, garbage, noise, waste and the overall destruction of what makes the Barrens a beautiful place, said Nageleisen.
The group has been meeting monthly and are “pretty engaged, in sometimes heated debates, but generally positive discussions about things that we would like to do.” The group is made up of representatives from Gravenhurst and Muskoka Lakes municipalities, government agencies and concerned residents, with the goal of protecting “this gem in our community.”
The first concern is overnight camping, specifically large parties that have been occurring in the Barrens. He said that leads to other complaints about fire risk, noise and increased waste, and that enforcement has been particularly difficult.
The group is “proposing and looking at maps in detail to restrict camping to designated areas that would make it much easier for the Ministry to manage and enforce camping regulations. It would be more of a permit-typed camping, similar to what you might see in a provincial park,” Nageleisen explained. The process is underway, but the designation and location of those sites has not been finalized for recommendation.
Backcountry camping will be encouraged, so that large vehicles “cannot drive through the Barrens and have these large parties.”
The second issue the group is working on is parking, specifically along Southwood Road. He said it is “more impacted by Muskoka Lakes, less so the Gravenhurst portion and touchpoints of the Barrens.” Some reduction in large parties has occurred since some parking restrictions and signs have gone up. “Our early observations have been that it seems to be getting better…it’s not perfect but we seem to be on the right path,” said Nageleisen.
Other ideas the group is exploring is having designated, permitted parking spots for overnight camping and dark sky observation. Nageleisen thanked council for the dark sky by-law because it gives the ability to observe and enjoy the skies. He encouraged continued commitment to support enforcement and engagement in a consistent way and meeting the dark sky objectives.
“To summarize what I think we might have is a park that encourages day hiking on well-maintained and signed trails and backcountry camping sites for the people who are really going there in the spirit of enjoying nature and leaving no footprint as opposed to what is currently happening.”
Deputy Mayor Heidi Lorenz asked if this meant the backcountry campsites would operate like a provincial campsite, with amenities like a picnic table, a pit toilet, an assigned fire pit and sometimes a platform for tents. She followed with a second question: “why not just ban camping altogether?”
Nageleisen responded that the sites would look very much like a classic Algonquin campsite. So there would be a ‘thunderbox’ that would be cleaned and maintained by the Ministry and food and garbage would be ‘pack it in, pack it out’ and having bottle and can bans. He said that the Ministry tends to encourage backcountry camping rather than banning it entirely.
Coun. Penny Varney asked how far into the park the campsites would be, as one of her main concerns is fire risk, because of “climate change, heat, people smoking.” The reduction of fire risk should flow, says Nageleisen, when “there are not large groups having fires and a lot of drinking going on.”
A proposed list of campsites is under review, said Nageleisen. “The goal is to keep the campsites at least 200 metres away from the road to try to avoid people who are coming in on ATVs and other vehicles.” Fires would be limited to only cooking fires in properly maintained fire cairns.
Coun. Gordon asked how having registrations issued for overnight camping would change the type of users at the Barrens.
Nageleisen said that the proposal would be very similar to how a provincial park operates. By only allowing permitted camping, that would “give the warden the authority to manage the campsites and anyone who was not permitted, to be able to ask them to leave and to manage them. And for those who were permitted, we would have their licence plate info and generally speaking, through the Ministry those are likely to be responsible people rather than the loud crowds we have been having.”
The next Gravenhurst council meeting will be streamed on YouTube on May 17 at 3pm.
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