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BEHIND THE SCENES: Proposal to remove trees for Hiawatha parking lot sparks debate

SooToday reporter Alex Flood takes us behind the scenes

The plan to remove a section of trees owned by the conservation authority in order to create 48 additional parking spaces at the Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club has sparked hesitancy among local residents. To gather community feedback, the ski club, along with the Sault Ste. Marie Region Conservation Authority (SSMRCA) and Hiawatha Highlands, organized a public information session regarding the proposed expansion of the Pinder parking lots on Landslide Road. These parking lots, situated across from the Kinsmen Club, serve as year-round parking for cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and cyclists exploring the surrounding trail systems.

The Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club highlights the severe congestion experienced at the current Pinder lots due to the increasing popularity of these outdoor activities. This congestion has forced club members and trail users to resort to parking along the sides of the main road, raising significant safety concerns. The club contends that by clearing the vegetation between the existing parking lots, the proposed expansion would alleviate these issues. It would provide additional parking spots, reduce roadside parking, ensure safer vehicle exits, mitigate the risk of accidents such as slips and falls or children running into traffic, and enhance overall visibility throughout the parking lot, discouraging illegal dumping.

Despite the ski club's arguments, some local residents, including Brian Mealey, a former ski coach with a deep connection to the area, oppose the proposal to remove the trees. Mealey asserts that the tall trees hold significant meaning for the community, possibly being more than two centuries old. Their presence provides a sense of beauty and tranquility, which Mealey believes is vital for the area. Joined by Owen Heeps, another resident, Mealey suggests an alternative solution. They propose clearing the brush and less significant vegetation along the sides of the Pinder lots to create more parking space without sacrificing the existing trees. According to their measurements, the ski club could add around 60 new parking spots between the two lots, surpassing the initial target of 48 spots. Heeps also highlights the lack of organization in the current parking lots, as the absence of designated parking lines leads to inefficient use of available space. He suggests that the funds allocated for tree removal could be better utilized to upgrade the parking lots and address this issue.

The ski club plans to proceed with the proposed clearing, grubbing, grading, and gravelling of the Pinder site between October and November 2023, aiming for completion before the arrival of winter snowfall. However, a final decision on the fate of the trees is yet to be determined. SSMRCA general manager Corrina Barret maintains openness to additional ideas and acknowledges the alternative measurements taken by Heeps and Mealey. The community continues to engage in discussions, weighing the potential benefits of parking expansion against the preservation of the cherished trees at the Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club.

Video Summary:

The Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club's proposal to cut down trees to create more parking spaces has faced objections from local residents concerned about safety and the ecological impact. The club is worried about congestion and safety risks caused by parking along Landslide Road during events. They have suggested clearing a wooded area between the existing parking lots, owned by the Sault Ste. Marie Region Conservation Authority, to add 48 parking spaces. However, residents like Brian Neely argue that the trees, estimated to be 100 years old, are essential to the local ecosystem and hold sentimental value.

Neely and Owen Heaps propose an alternative solution that involves removing shrubs and vegetation along the sides of the existing lots to create additional parking spaces without cutting down the trees. The conservation authority is open to considering new ideas but has not made a final decision. The ski club plans to carry out the proposed clearing in October or November 2023, but the outcome is still uncertain. The debate has sparked controversy in the community, with concerns raised about the loss of trees and potential ecological consequences.

The ski club and conservation authority have conducted environmental assessments to ensure that no endangered species or migratory bird habitats will be affected. While the ski club believes removing the trees is the easiest option, opponents argue for preserving the trees and finding alternative solutions. The decision on whether to proceed with the tree removal rests with the conservation authority, and their consideration of community feedback will play a significant role in determining the outcome.