Imagine a park with forests, cliffs, marshes, woodland creatures, wetlands, streams, hills, babbling brooks, delicate ecosystems, countless recreational and art trails, and more.
Now picture it in the heart of the fourth largest city in North America. If you’re anywhere near the Greater Toronto Area, you’re not dreaming. The Don River Valley Park, an intricate 200 hectare (500 acre) valley system ‘hides in plain sight’ and runs right through the heart of the city.
Changemaker Sean Symes loved hitting the Don single track trails as a recreational rider with his high school buddies, blissfully unaware that one day he’d become their defender.
It was when he switched from riding to trail running that he discovered how much more the park has to offer, as well as all the substantial threats and hazards it faces - from dumping, to invasive species, to corporate invaders.
Becoming more and more enamoured with the seemingly endless trail discoveries, gorgeous landscapes, and animal sightings, Sean graduated from weekend warrior to environmental advocate.
While road running left him uninspired, he found the trails energizing - jumping tree stumps and rocks, scaling hills; engaging more actively with the environment. “Being in the forest is relaxing and de-stressing, it’s a beautiful landscape and you’re just immersed in nature.”
The more he explored the region, the more he discovered its need for protectors, so he co-founded Don’t Mess with the Don (DMWTD) with longtime running pals to protect the vital green spaces, do clean-ups, and raise awareness.
Much of their work has revolved around clean-ups, “Picture running along in the sun, you’re seeing birds, bunnies, foxes, streams, and you turn a corner and stumble upon a mass of garbage.”
Other visitors seem to want to help - DMWTD had upwards of 900 volunteers turn-out before the pandemic hit.
“People are constantly asking when the next clean-up is,” so there’s no lack of enthusiasm.
And they’re going to need every ounce of it, as DMWTD faces one of its biggest challenges yet.
Transport monolith Metrolinx wants to build a Layover/Service Facility smack dab in the Don, threatening decades of restoration progress and fragile ecosystems and extensive wildlife habitat.The construction and operation of a 2.3 hectare train service facility will also severely impact the trail along with the enjoyment of all active people that use it.
The city has limited authority when it comes to Metrolinx, as it is a provincial agency with the full backing of the cabinet, so all public pressure is essential.
While it’s not a done deal, the city has approved the first steps, so timing is of the essence.
“We love public transit and want more people to use it,” says Sean, “We’re just hoping they put it in a location more suitable for industrial purposes.” They’ve identified viable alternative locations that meet all the publicly stated requirements of Metrolinx.
An onlinepetition is rapidly gaining traction and accruing signatures.
“The more noise we make before the shovels are in the ground, the better chance we have. Our community has power. The more of us who understand what we all stand to lose - and not just us, but future generations as well - the louder we get. We can have an impact.”
Very few world class cities can boast of a vast, central, lush green space. “We need to treasure it and protect it - we need to plant more trees, not chop them down.”
Learn more and add your voice at Dontmesswiththedon.ca
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