Opinion: Excuses made for trail encroachers getting old

Wildflowers (phlox ) along the Howard Watson Trail. Glenn Ogilvie

George Mathewson

Sarnia finally appears to be getting serious about human encroachment on the Howard Watson Nature Trail.

A ‘Guide for Neighbours’ has been prepared that clearly explains why people shouldn’t erect fences, dig gardens, and build storage sheds on public property. It should be obvious why protecting a thin band of what remains of Sarnia’s natural habitat is important, but apparently it isn’t.

What’s most encouraging about the document is it gives property owners who encroach on the nature trail just 30 days to return damaged areas to their original state or face charges under the Provincial Offences Act.

To my mind, the 17-kilometre nature trail is one of Sarnia’s most precious and undervalued features, and as a regular user I see the injury done by private landowners who’ve been allowed for decades to treat it as an extension of their own backyards.

To be fair, the vast majority of homeowners who live on the trail really do appreciate it, and treat it with respect. But a frustrating number continue to dump yard wastes, mow native wildflowers into pulp and drain their chemical-laden swimming pools onto the trail.

And frankly, I’m tired of the excuses made for these people — that they don’t understand it’s public property, that their misguided efforts to replace “weeds” with landscaping is somehow acceptable.

What makes the former railway right-of-way so special is that it wasn’t farmed or developed like the land around it. Somehow, today, it still boasts 17 species of butterflies and 150 species of plants, including 14 listed as at-risk or threatened.

So it’s both a well-maintained and well-used recreational trail, thanks to the efforts of Bluewater Trails and other groups, and a priceless piece of rare urban habitat supporting a remarkable variety of wildlife.

The new Guide for Neighbours, available at www.sarnia.ca, was produced in partnership with Return the Landscape with input from the Sarnia Urban Wildlife Committee.

It states that city staff will conduct inspections each spring and fall and contact offenders.

Certain features in place prior to Jan. 1 of 2017, including trees planted by homeowners and small natural access paths, will be “grandfathered” in and allowed to stay.

Sadly, however, abutting homeowners will continue to be allowed to cut vegetation two metres into the trail itself to help with property maintenance.

That might not sound like much, but it effectively grants licence to turn 13 feet of the 99-foot-wide trail right-of-way into lawn. The trail itself and its grassy border occupy another 12 feet or so, leaving precious little space for plants and animals.

Nevertheless, the Parks and Recreation department deserves full marks for preparing the guide, as an educational resource for homeowners and a constructive way to address the numerous complaints it receives about trail encroachment.