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Urban forest: Preserving Montreal's Falaise Saint-Jacques

BY Mark Mann

8th May 2023 Environment

Urban forest: Preserving Montreal's Falaise Saint-Jacques

Montreal locals have fought hard to protect La Falaise Saint-Jacques. Now the environmental and social benefits of urban forests are catching on

If the weeds and invasive species of Montreal had a god, it would be the Falaise Saint-Jacques. Nine storeys tall and four kilometres long, the falaise (French for “cliff”) hunches over Highway 20 in the city’s southwest. Every day, 300,000 people drive past it, but if asked about the Falaise, most would say, “What’s that?”

It is a strange sort of vanishing act, to be seen yet ignored by all. Planted in 1985 on an ad hoc dumping site, this rugged stretch of woodland has never received consistent upkeep by the city. Until recently, few people visited it.

But human indifference has been the forest’s good fortune. While no one was looking, it evolved into a jungle-like ecosystem, bursting with tall trees and birdsong. Today it provides a refuge for foxes, groundhogs, an endangered species of brown snake and the occasional deer that wanders in along the nearby train tracks.

It’s easy to fall in love with the Falaise, how it feels huge and lush and yet like a secret garden.

"While no one was looking, it evolved into a jungle-like ecosystem"

Since 2015, some of its admirers have been taking care of it themselves: carrying out hundreds of tires and other trash by hand, clearing pathways, documenting wildlife and filling bird feeders.

They call themselves Sauvons la Falaise—or “Let’s Save the Escarpment”—and their motto is “Make the Falaise our own.”

In many ways, the members of Sauvons la Falaise have been wildly successful. The city and the province are investing millions to protect the Falaise and increase the amount of surrounding parkland, with the vision of turning the escarpment into a hub for a network of green corridors around the city.

But as these transformations unfold, the forest’s admirers are wondering if their wild oasis will retain the sense of freedom and community they have experienced there. Will it still be theirs?

Discovering the untamed forest

Falaise Saint-Jacques greeneryGilles Douaire from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. When Lisa Mitz stumbled on the Falaise, it was entirely overgrown

On a cold February day in 2015, a librarian named Lisa Mintz was walking home after work when she heard the screaming of crows from beyond a nearby treeline.

Though she didn’t yet know it, Mintz’s route took her along the top of the Falaise on an industrial road called Saint Jacques Street West.

The crows she was hearing were part of a massive murder that descends on the escarpment every winter, clouding the branches of the Eastern cottonwoods, maples, willows and more. She decided to investigate.

At the time, accessing the Falaise was no easy feat. That part of Saint Jacques presents a long barricade of auto repair shops, car dealerships and hardware stores. To reach the forest you had to get past a chain-link fence, after which the escarpment drops away steeply.

Mintz, a budding birdwatcher, wasn’t the type to be dissuaded. With a bit of searching, she found a gate and entered the thick bramble on the other side.

Night was falling as she began her descent into the Falaise, her hat pulled low over her red hair. Stomping and sliding through the snow, she realized she would have a hard time reaching the top again. The forest felt untamed and deserted, and she became scared.

"To reach the forest you had to get past a chain-link fence, after which the escarpment drops away steeply"

Can I actually get lost back here? she wondered. At last, she came across ski tracks running along a narrow trail and followed them to make her escape.

That first adventure would prove fateful for Mintz and for the Falaise, which has a way of inviting deep devotion from the people who stumble into it.

In the years since, Mintz has brought thousands of people to discover the forest, and many have joined her army of volunteers and advocates. But the best part of the experience was the sense of solitude.

“I felt like the first person who was ever there,” Mintz says.

Just a hundred metres away, however, she could hear the cacophony of construction on a new $3.7-billion public infrastructure project to rebuild a criss-crossing network of highways and train tracks.

The creation of the original interchange back in the 1960s had dramatically altered the geography of the escarpment, when the slopes of the Falaise were steepened into cliffs by trucks dumping excavated dirt from the top. The renewed construction threatened to change the Falaise again.

Fighting for la Falaise

Road beside Falaise Saint-JacquesQuentin Quixote, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. A new transport project threatended the Falaise Saint-Jacques in 2015

While walking in the forest in 2015, Mintz noticed orange markers on a large stand of trees. Alarmed, she called her city councillor, Peter McQueen, who is one of the escarpment’s most devoted users.

McQueen recommended she attend an information session for the new infrastructure project the next evening. She did and was assured that the trees wouldn’t be cut. But when she returned to the Falaise a few months later, they were gone.

The province of Quebec’s Ministry of Transport (MTQ) had removed 165 to 200 trees, and also acquired a voluble opponent in Mintz. She formed the Facebook group Sauvons la Falaise and wrote an op-ed for the Montreal Gazette in which she decried the MTQ and “the environmental destruction that is taking place right before our eyes.”

Though few people had heard of the Falaise or ever visited it, Mintz’s article drew a lot of attention. The next time she came to a public consultation with the MTQ, she was joined by a band of 20-plus supporters, who in turn drew the attention of more journalists.

Sauvons la Falaise has since swelled to 400 members, and they have kept sustained pressure on the province and the city. Since she started fighting, Mintz has given more than 300 media interviews about the escarpment.

"Locals only"

There are two types of people who visit the Falaise: the noisy ones, like Mintz, and those who prefer to stay quiet. The latter type tends to appreciate the escarpment for the very qualities that its new official status will likely imperil—namely, that it feels unsupervised and free.

During the first summer of the pandemic, teenagers built a skate park among the trees, on a less overgrown stretch of the old service road. They made a sitting area and hung a spray-painted skateboard from a tree branch, announcing “Locals Only.”

“People that I hang out with are drawn to those kinds of areas, where you feel a bit secluded from everything and there’s a bit more freedom,” says local artist Junko, who helped build the skate park.

Later that winter, he returned to the Falaise to construct a massive mechanical beast—poised like a panther mid-prowl—out of logs and car parts.

Though their interests and motivations may differ, the members of Sauvons la Falaise have made common cause with folks like Junko and the skateboarders.

In 2020, Mintz ceded control of Sauvons la Falaise to a new steering committee made up of three men in their 60s: Malcolm McRae, David Gamper and Roger Jochym. They love the skate park and Junko’s creation, which they call “the Falaisosaur.”

Stewards of the forest

Locals volunteering in Falaise Saint-JacquesLocals have rallied to protect the forest and the biodiversity it contains

Sauvons la Falaise may have started with a focus on advocacy, but the group has evolved to take on more and more of the forest’s care and maintenance. The steering committee has spent the last two summers creating a walking trail that reaches from one end to the other.

Louise Chenevert, the group’s tree expert, has put up dozens of signs to mark tree species and warn visitors away from poison ivy. Biology students from nearby Concordia University have been documenting plant and insect species and conducting soil tests.

The members of Sauvons la Falaise are the forest’s eyes and ears. They keep track of the dumping of salt-laden snow over its edge in winter, the weight of which destabilizes the earth and knocks trees over. This is just one of the major threats to the Falaise.

But people like Chenevert also track signs of hope, like the appearance of Sanguinaria canadensis, or bloodroot, a fragile spring flower traditionally used by Indigenous peoples to make red ink.

"The members of Sauvons la Falaise are the forest’s eyes and ears"

Things continue to change for the Falaise. Around the world, urban forests are increasingly recognized for the benefits they confer—such as reducing air pollution and temperatures, and improving general well-being—and the City of Montreal has taken notice.

In 2020, Mayor Valérie Plante announced the creation of a 60-hectare nature park that will encompass the escarpment, extend the amount of green space, and provide walking and cycling paths.

In the summer of 2021, the MTQ created a green corridor along the base of the Falaise. Workers planted 2,800 trees and more than 60,000 shrubs and grasses across 13 hectares, nearly doubling the size of the forest.

“They did a really good job,” Mintz admits. “It’s native species. It’s mixed forest. The trees they planted are quite large.” She even sent them a nice note.

In addition, in April 2022, Montreal’s executive committee approved an $8-million loan bylaw to finance landscaping work (including picnic areas and trails) and the acquisition of buildings. And there is now a new, more accessible entrance on Saint Jacques.

Despite these advancements, Sauvons la Falaise soldiers on. Its main goal is the construction of a land bridge, dubbed the Dalle Parc, that will extend from the top of the escarpment across the highway, where another park is slated to be built on disused land.

Keeping it wild

In today’s Falaise, the “Locals Only” sign is gone. The trail is well maintained and marked with handwritten signs. The culture of the Falaise is shifting. And Mintz is working to shape its next phase so that more is gained than lost.

She has launched a charity called UrbaNature, which leads classes, workshops and nature tours in the escarpment. Says Mintz, “We see the Falaise being left alone and just used for educational purposes.”

Seclusion is part of the Falaise’s charm, but the escarpment didn’t really come to life until a community of people adopted it. It may take a city to make a park, but only citizens can keep a forest wild.

© 2022, Beside. From “The People’s Forest,” by Mark Mann, beside.media

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