The Mysterious Island

After years of opposing development in the North Saskatchewan River valley, a dedicated group of local citizens are glad to now be working toward establishing a park for future generations.

Illustration Eric Diotte

Lying in the city’s extreme southwest corner is an incredible area most Edmontonians don’t know exists. Spanning about 5.5 kilometres of the North Saskatchewan River, the Big Island-Woodbend Natural Area encompasses more than 400 hectares of land on both sides of the river valley.

Few people visit the massive area, absent of any development, and most who do reach it by canoe. When they disembark, they find wilderness, and an accompanying stillness that makes it easy to forget they’re still standing within city limits. The landscape is diverse: there’s an old growth forest of poplar and white spruce, the only intact sand dunes in Edmonton, extensive natural wetlands, and ample habitat for deer, moose, porcupines and other creatures. Wildflowers are abundant.

Stephen Madsen knows the area well. The father of five lives on a nearby acreage and has long enjoyed being outside, connecting with nature, and sharing such experiences – which he describes as rejuvenating – with his family. Madsen, a civil engineer, remembers feeling flabbergasted nearly 10 years ago when a neighbour told him a gravel pit was being proposed for the nearby natural area. “You’re kidding, right?” he thought. “How could we do something like that?”

The North Saskatchewan River valley is no doubt part of Edmonton’s identity and mythology. The “ribbon of green” forms the longest stretch of connected urban parkland in North America, a fact that Edmontonians are proud to share. When Madsen lived in New York City and people asked him where he was from, he’d tell them about Edmonton’s gorgeous and vast system of river valley parks and trails. But, when he learned of the gravel-pit proposal, what he thought he knew about the city was shaken.

“The river valley here is a real asset, but it’s also something we take for granted,” Madsen says now.

At the time, Madsen’s initial shock spurred action, and he and other residents rallied together and passionately fought the gravel pit proposal.

Now, after nearly a decade of advocacy, the relatively unknown and untouched wilderness located between Winterburn Road (215th Street) and the eastern bank of the river valley is on the path to being permanently preserved. Last December, Edmonton city council took its first steps to protect the area, approving funding over three years to develop a $650,000 park master plan. What started as a group of residents fighting against a proposed gravel pit has become the impetus for preserving the largest remaining natural area in Edmonton’s river valley. The swath is massive, more than twice as big as Terwillegar Park and more than five times the size of Hawrelak Park.

“We’re still kind of pinching ourselves,” says Madsen, president of the North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society (NSRVCS), of council’s decision to fund a master plan. “We were extremely relieved that it got approved.” Following the gravel-pit proposal in 2007, Madsen and his neighbours’ living-room meetings were the genesis for the NSRVCS, now a citywide organization dedicated to protecting all natural areas along the river valley. It’s a worthy cause: The Edmonton and Area Land Trust estimates 16 per cent of Edmonton’s natural areas disappeared between 1995 and 2005.

Michael Oshry, city councillor for Ward 5 – which includes the Big Island-Woodbend Natural area – put forth the motion to provide funding for the plan. As Edmonton continues to grow outward, Oshry says, now is the time to ensure the river valley is preserved. “We don’t want to have development reach these areas before we have a plan in place,” he says. Some of the land is privately owned, albeit empty – the NSRVCS estimates its value at $25 million – and, at some point, the City may have to buy that land, Oshry says. He describes the area, which he has reached by canoe and by foot, as pristine, “a different beast” than other river valley parks.

“It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but you’re still in the city.”

“It’s a very lovely, very beautiful area,” says Michael Phair, a former Edmonton city councillor who became the NSRVCS’s first executive director in January 2015. Phair agrees with Oshry that now is the time to act; developers estimate 150,000 people will eventually live on land near the area, he says. He describes the river valley as a valuable asset: “I think it gives people a sense of well-being. It’s the kind of thing that helps Edmontonians to love the city of Edmonton.”

Back in 2007, however, competing visions for the land led to an ongoing dispute. Real estate developer Qualico proposed to buy land across the river from the Windermere Golf and Country Club and build a gravel pit, with plans to eventually donate the reclaimed land to the city for a park. (Both Hawrelak Park and Terwillegar Park were once gravel pits.) The proposal prompted residents to unite, sharing concerns the project would harm the environment and create noise, dust and problems for traffic safety in the area. A public hearing, organized by the NSRVCS in 2008, saw about 800 attendees. “People were furious,” Madsen remembers. But proponents of the project argued there were environmental benefits to using local gravel for road projects, and pointed to the group’s motivation as NIMBYism.

Qualico eventually dropped its plans in 2009.

That same year, Kanata Metis Cultural Enterprises, owned by the Elizabeth Mtis settlement, bought the land. Plans for a river valley gravel pit were revived by Kanata in 2011. Their proposal included creating jobs and using profits for social programs, then reclaiming the area as a park and Mtis heritage interpretive centre. City council narrowly turned down the project in 2011, voting 7-6 against rezoning farmland to allow for the extraction of gravel.

Now, with city council’s latest move – to develop a park master plan – the NSRVCS is breathing a collective sigh of relief, even if that means the land won’t be entirely untouched by development. The funding will allow the City of Edmonton to engage in public consultation to determine details such as how the area will be accessed, what trails or facilities might be added, such as water fountains, washrooms, picnic spots and benches, and how the area will fit in with the rest of the river valley park system.

The conservation society envisions an accessible valley park left mostly untouched, home to trails for walking and biking. While adding infrastructure to the pristine area may seem counterintuitive, the society sees value in making the area more accessible. After all, it’s hard to appreciate a natural area, and be motivated to protect it, if you can’t even get there.

Over the years, Madsen has toured various people throughout the site, and watched as they slowed down, absorbing the natural beauty and taking in the incredible views, feeling something they didn’t feel before.

“I think we don’t always recognize what nature does for us. We connect with it. It means something to us. It’s important to us,” he says.

With better accessibility, more people could feel that powerful and special connection.   

Everyone involved lists different reasons for why such a space is important, ranging from environmental factors to opportunities for recreation. For Madsen, relationships are key – both between the health of the river and the health of the land surrounding it, and between Edmontonians and nature. NSRVCS vice-president Dianne Assaly says having a space within the city to get outside, on a bike or in running shoes, is vital.

Keren Tang, a member of the society’s board with a background in public health, values the area for its potential impact on people’s health and well-being. “If we want to encourage people to be physically active, we need an environment that’s conducive. If we want people to go enjoy the outdoors more, we need more greenspace, even within an urban setting,” she says.

After years of fighting against something, Madsen and other society members are happy to be shifting their focus to fighting for something: a park for all to enjoy. Madsen is imagining what the Big Island-Woodbend Natural Area could look and feel like, and how it will add to Edmonton’s River Valley identity. “We want future generations to say, ‘Wow, this group had a great idea. It made a difference in the area.'”


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