New park committee holds town hall

Joe Kowalski, owner of Wilderness Tours Outfitters in Beachburg, gave a presentation at the Campbell’s Bay R.A. Hall on Oct. 30 about his vision to turn a group of islands near the Rocher Fondu rapids into a park.
The evening brought out several hundred people and many seemed supportive of the project, which is still in the early stages.
New park committee holds town hall.

CALEB NICKERSON
CAMPBELL’S BAY Oct. 30, 2018
On Tuesday evening, locals packed the Campebell’s Bay R.A. Hall to learn more about a project to establish a park in the Pontiac region, specifically encompassing the islands around the Rocher Fondu rapids near Grand Calumet Island.
The information session was spearheaded by Joe Kowalski, owner of one of the largest outfitters offering paddling excursions on the river, Wilderness Tours (WT). In the months leading up to the meeting, Kowalski was busy pitching his plan to local officials, and was given unanimous resolutions of support from the Municipality of Grand Calumet Island, MRC Pontiac and Renfrew County.
The designation they seek is from the Société des établissements de plein air du Québec (Sépaq), which oversees parks and wildlife protection in the province. In Quebec, parks overseen by the province are referred to as “National” parks.
Before Kowalski began, he introduced the members of the recently formed National Park committee, who represent the various stakeholders involved: Campbell’s Bay Mayor Maurice Beauregard (representing MRC Pontiac council), MRC engineer Kim Lesage (representing the MRC Pontiac), Grand Calumet Mayor Serge Newberry (representing his municipality), Manager of Economic Development and Tourism development for Renfrew County Alastair Baird (representing Renfrew County and the Ottawa Valley Tourism Association) and Kowalski (representing WT and the Whitewater Region).
“Keep in mind, these are just my thoughts,” Kowalski said. “In the last couple of months, we’ve had a committee formed and we’re going to be putting together a new plan, but I’m going to give you the plan that I originally came up with. It may or may not be the end product, it probably won’t be. But in any journey you have to have that first step, you have to have a starting point.”
Kowalski explained that he had previously tried to secure support for a park from Pontiac mayors back in 1989, but was turned down. He added that there was interest from local residents, but not enough to go forward. Undeterred, he began purchasing land around the rapids, both in Ontario and Quebec, with the intention of preserving the area from development.
“I truly believe in preserving the integrity of the river corridor,” he said “I’m a capitalist and a developer, but this is the last wild section on the Ottawa River and it should be kept pristine and that’s exactly what I tried to do these past thirty years, and the national park will take it one step further.”
The islands are currently owned by the province of Quebec, but managed by officials at MRC Pontiac. Following the meeting, Newberry explained that there are a handful of residents who hunt and maintain some of the old forestry roads on the islands.
Kowalski’s vision for the area features suspension bridges and trails linking the two provinces across the island group. He added that the Canyon Sainte-Anne in Beaupré, Que. as well as the Montmorency Falls near Quebec City were some of his inspirations.
He explained that the paddling tours he operates around Rocher Fondu are great for summer tourism, but land-based activities like walking, bird watching and snowmobiling are vital to attract year-round visitors.
“[WT has] not been successful in generating year-round tourism because we’re a paddle-sports company and the paddle sports market is very, very tiny,” he said. “The larger market is people that just want to go out and enjoy nature. Go out for nice nature walks, bird-watching, that’s the real market we want to attract.”
“All my adult life has been in paddle sports, but it’s really not the future for the Ottawa Valley,” he continued “It will be an important part but the real future is year-round tourism and residential development.”
He added that he would like to see a multi-use trail corridor for ATVs and snowmobiles connecting the provinces, but would restrict the rest of the park to non-motorized travel. In Kowalski’s opinion, the link to Ontario is necessary because the “Golden Horseshoe” area around Toronto provides the largest market in Canada, and is the primary gateway for international tourists arriving in the country.
“Ontario’s important because it has the market, that’s why it’s very important for Pontiac County, Renfrew County, to work together,” he said. “Ontario and Quebec working together for the betterment of everybody.”
Kowalski also said that Ontario’s provincial government promised to extend the four-lane section of Hwy. 17 to Storyland Road in the next five years, which would boost accessibility.
He had a counter argument prepared for those who would oppose more bridges on the river.
“There’s always been propensity by those who have the physical ability to enjoy nature to hinder those that don’t,” he said. “There are climbers against cable parks providing access to mountaintops and white water paddlers that are against bridges … for those who don’t have the skills to access the crown jewel of the Pontiac, which is the Rocher Fondu rapids. I strongly disagree with that position and believe that everyone has the right to enjoy nature, whether you have the physical ability or not. ”
Kowalski laid out a rough estimate of the economics of the project, having contacted the companies that built other suspension bridges in the province. He pegged the cost of the bridges at $4.5 million, with an additional $450,000 for trails, signage and other expenses.
He also had several ideas for potential revenue streams, and how they would be divided among stakeholders. He said he based his numbers on 100,000 annual visitors but claims many more are possible.
“Obviously I’m a promoter, so you gotta … I can’t say a million but we hope have a lot of people,” he said. “Everybody likes the idea of a million, it just sounds nice, a million visitors sounds nice but I believe it’s achievable.”
Kowalski said that he would deed over parts of his land to the project, but restrict any development near the park to the Quebec side.
“I promise here tonight, and I will be happy to put it in writing, that there will not be any development at the Ontario bridgehead, so all economic development will be in Quebec,” he said.
The next step for the committee will be to consult with Pontiac MNA André Fortin and MP Will Amos on how to move the plan forward.
After the presentation was over, the floor was opened to questions. One resident asked if any environmental assessments had been done on the islands, and asserted that the protection of wildlife should be prioritized over development.
“No studies have been done yet,” said Lesage. “There’s a lot of studies that need to be done, we’re finding out right now what needs to be done to create a National Park.”
Grand Calumet Island resident John Wootton had a unique perspective on the project and offered the committee his advice. A member of Wootton’s family owned much of the land that is now the Parc National du Bic, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, and he was privy to the long arduous process of expropriation and deciding the park’s boundaries. He said that it took nearly a decade of concerted effort before it was established.
“I think the vision of wanting to preserve that section of the river is entirely laudable and probably wouldn’t have been available to us if it hadn’t been preserved all these years,” he said. “But it may require some compromises from all sides on what land [will be used], what can be done with it.”
“It’s a long, torturous battle but right now, the area that is now the Parc du Bic is pristine and will be for generations to come,” he concluded. “That’s worthwhile so keep that in mind, but I think you’re going to have many twists in the road before you actually get to the final destination.”
Several members of the audience spoke about how much they support the project, including the committee members, former Grand Calumet Mayor Irène Nadeau and Pontiac Warden Jane Toller.

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