Concern about one of Muskoka’s most unique and rare environmental treasures is growing after two incidents involving police and multiple complaints about garbage at Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve.
Torrance Barrens is a world heritage site, but that isn’t how people are treating it – nor is the problem a new one.
“We have a world heritage site and people are getting away with treating it like a landfill,” said Karen Burgess, a Huntsville resident who frequents the Barrens to shoot nature photography.
Burgess, who sometimes brings a garbage bag along when visiting, has encountered broken glass on the trails, plastic water bottles and other garbage near where people camp.
On one occasion, she found a stack of pizza boxes left beside a garbage can. When MuskokaRegion.com visited, disposable face masks littered the area as well as cigarette butts, firework remnants and sanitizing wipes.
“This is supposed to be Crown land that is protected, and we’re allowing this,” said Burgess, who feels the area should be treated and managed the way a provincial park is.
If garbage is left so carelessly, food will start attracting animals, she continued. “It’s going to be a bear problem, and then they’re putting people in danger.”
A lack of action toward better regulating the land and those using it has worsened the problem, she stressed.
And that’s where things get tricky.
The land is technically within the Township of Muskoka Lakes and the Town of Gravenhurst, but is Crown land, which falls under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
However, in April 2019, the responsibility and enforcement of the area was transferred to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
In a statement to MuskokaRegion.com, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said it is not aware of any specific habitat destruction within the reserve.
“Torrance Barrens is a very popular location for outdoor recreational activities and the ministry continues to strive to balance that recreational use with the protection (and) conservation of the natural landscape,” the statement reads.
Home to rare species of flora and fauna, found in only one other area of the country, Torrance Barrens is also home to a number of species at risk. Close to 500 species of flowering plants grow there, 150 species of birds and numerous mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
In 1997, it was deemed a world heritage site for its “natural, recreational and aesthetic values,” according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry website.
In 1999, it was also designated a dark-sky preserve – the first in Canada – because of its remote location, far from any urban light sources. Its level landscape is surrounded by hills that obscure the horizon and offers unobstructed views of the sky, an ideal spot for astronomers.
But the issue of its care has long been a problem. A Facebook group called Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve was started to share images captured there. Since 2019, it has turned into a place where people have documented issues of lingering trash, reckless driving and camping beyond designated areas.
According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, there are no maintained campsites within the conservation reserve. Camping is permitted, but prohibited in the dark-sky viewing area.
In June, Bracebridge OPP responded to a complaint about people being disrespectful to the natural environment. Junhong Chen, 20, of Mississauga and Daniil Oliynyk, 21, of Maple were each charged with careless use of firearms, and police seized six guns from the scene.
On July 19, Bracebridge OPP responded to 911 calls from Torrance Barrens just after 3 a.m. and arrived to find an assault in progress. Two victims were sent to hospital with serious injuries and later released; 30-year-old Farid Khasianov of Whitby faces two counts of assault causing bodily harm and failure to comply with probation.
When asked if recent events could lead to more monitoring of Torrance Barrens, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said staff attend the site “periodically” and perform maintenance activities, including garbage collection.
“The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks is committed to protecting the natural habitat of Torrance Barrens for future generations,” it said in a statement.
Further regulation of natural sites is not what Burgess wants, but she doesn’t see another way to tackle the problem. She proposes visitors pay a small entrance free or campers be required to obtain permits, and that the ministry use those funds for better management of the area.
A similar sentiment has been expressed on social media.
“I can’t understand what would draw you to that beauty and then treat it like that,” Burgess said.
— With notes from Sarah Law.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Torrance Barrens is a jewel of Muskoka, and we wanted to see what is being done to mitigate the potential long-term environmental damage and ensure human safety at the world heritage site.
At the time of this writing, Kristyn Anthony was a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, funded by the Government of Canada.
Kristyn Anthony, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com