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A Shore Worth Saving

By Anne Jarvis, The Windsor Star, May 15, 2009

Waves roll in rhythmically, slapping the tiny strip of sand, washing over the small stones. Cottonwood trees rustle in the wind. A catbird calls.

I'm in a special place: Windsor's last natural shore on the Detroit River.

You can trek there through a forest of walnut, chestnut and oak, around small swamps. I passed coyote tracks and saw a vivid orange and black Baltimore oriole and a red-headed woodpecker.

It's called Ojibway Shores, 16 hectares of vacant land, including a kilometre of shoreline, in Brighton Beach southwest of the power plant.

With the new bridge planned near there, this could be the last and best chance the city has to save the remnant of one of the most significant features of its natural heritage.

There are many ironies in this story. The first is that the flora and fauna of Ojibway Shores aren't particularly important. What's crucial, says naturalist Phil Roberts, is that the property links the river to the abutting Black Oak Heritage Park, Ojibway prairie and Spring Garden Natural Area.

These are by far the most important natural areas in Windsor, significant provincially and nationally. They include the largest remaining protected prairie in Ontario. New insects have been discovered here, named after this area and are found nowhere else. Governments have spent decades and millions of dollars protecting these lands.

But protecting islands of flora and fauna isn't enough. Isolated and inbred, they stagnate and eventually fail. Linking them allows species to move and acquire fresh genes, strengthening the population.

Everything in an ecosystem has a role and everything is interconnected. If you list the number of species in Ojibway Shores and how they interact and how that interaction improves the biodiversity of the entire complex, well, that's key, Roberts says.

The Windsor Port Authority, which owns much of Ojibway Shores, including the shoreline, is seen as the biggest challenge to saving it, which is another irony. The port authority, a member of the Detroit River Canadian Cleanup, wants to develop Ojibway Shores.

With the new bridge and nearby Essex Terminal Railway line and Morterm Limited cargo terminal, the port authority sees "terrific potential" to link different modes of transportation, said CEO David Cree.

"His message is the same as ours," said Roberts, "except he's talking goods and we're talking genetics."

The port authority has left a 100-foot easement for animals to reach the water and has considered doubling it, said Cree. But an easement isn't much of a habitat.

The final irony is that environmentalists see the bridge and the truck plaza planned next to Ojibway Shores, bringing thousands of trucks, as an opportunity. With construction crews next to Ojibway Shores, why not restore it at the same time? An ecologist and restoration biologist could help design the entire site, said Roberts. Instead of building a stormwater retention pond for the plaza, create a small, coastal wetland to handle stormwater and provide a place for fish to spawn and native mussels to be reintroduced.

The bridge itself could even include areas for peregrine falcons to nest (they're already nesting on the Ambassador Bridge).

Trees have been cut in Ojibway Shores, garbage and muck from dredging has been dumped there and off-road vehicles rip through it. But plenty of plants and animals remain to help restore it, Roberts said. Exotic species could be removed, native species reintroduced and fish spawning reefs installed.

Metro Detroit faced the same decision several years ago when a condominium development threatened the last river wetland off the mainland. The development was turned down. Today, the Humbug Marsh is there.

In the $5-billion border crossing project, restoring Ojibway Shores is peanuts, figures Derek Coronado of the Citizens Environment Alliance. In Windsor, small scraps of land are all that's left to fight for, he said, "In terms of what's left, it's pretty important."

As important as economic development is in a recession, sometimes it can be shortsighted. There are many opportunities for development in Windsor, said Roberts. But "the opportunity to save the last bit of remaining shoreline is quite finite."

"Is the first view coming into Canada going to be smokestacks and railways or a green corridor into the heart of the city?" he asked.

"Is the recognition going to be for building an ecological crossing? Is that what we are as Canadians? Or is it about what we can offload from ships onto trains and how fast we can do that?"

I prefer his vision.