Boucher Forest Foundation presents big plans to city at plenary meeting
The Boucher Forest Foundation’s Executive Director Marianne Strauss presented the management and development plan for the forest’s future to Gatineau Municipal Council, September 29, garnering glowing reviews across the board. Envisioning an outdoor educational nature haven for the community at large, Strauss said the park’s management and development plan aims to make the forest more accessible for residents, and create a sense of pride and harmony with nature – hoping to preserve the forest’s ecosystems.
The presentation included an update regarding the city’s forest management agreement with the Boucher Forest Foundation established for 2019-2021 and the organization’s long-term vision for the park. Noting Aylmer’s growing population, plenty of schools in the surrounding area and more to come, Strauss said west Gatineau desperately needs an urban park – noting that other parts of the city already have their own. “We want it to be known in the region as a place where people, kids and families can come and learn in the forest,” Strauss said.
--Outdoor education and ecological conservation a priority
Centering programming on the western portion of the forest, the plan proposes free access to all infrastructures, around seven kilometres of natural trails, more than one kilometre of wooden walkways and bridges, signage and urban furniture, a provincially unique interpretative path guided by internationally-recognized children’s book author Élise Gravel, and different access points for adjacent neighbourhoods. The foundation still needs to acquire access rights for park entrances in the northeast on chemin Antoine-Boucher (owned by the Québec government and a private stakeholder) and south of the Jardins Lavigne neighbourhood (owned by Hydro Québec and a private stakeholder), which should be done by the spring of 2021, in time for the start of development work, Strauss said. “If we want to allow access from those neighbourhoods, we need an agreement with those property owners,” she stated. “It shouldn’t be problematic to give us access rights for these existing access points.”
The park’s main entrance is expected to be on rue Samuel-Edey and accessible to vehicles and pedestrians from several surrounding neighbourhoods, and from bike paths and five public transit lines. It should also include a one-kilometre universally accessible trail with wooden walkways and urban furniture provided by the city of Gatineau, Loisir Sport Outaouais and AlterGo, as well as a one-kilometre mountain biking trail for kids and families.
The park’s first development phase - between January and November of 2021 - should see the levelling of pathways, the creation of new trails, installing wooden walkways, putting up signage and urban furniture and shelters for outdoor education. The second phase - going from 2022 to 2027 - should see the construction of a reception building, a 40-space parking lot, the mountain biking trail, more pathways and wooden walkways, more urban furniture and the creation of a leisure and exercise space for picnics and activities like hebertisme (ropes course / obstacle course).
Hoping to make the forest a cultural destination, Strauss said the foundation is planning on providing cultural and artistic activities in the park’s northernmost portions, including outdoor theatre, initiation to camping and yoga. The foundation marked different sectors of activity on the park’s map, intended for things like conservation, diversity and restoration, to decide the most optimal locations to implement activities and which areas should remain untouched.
Trees identified as potential safety hazards will be cut to ensure park user safety, Strauss said, adding that identification of invasive species and ones to be preserved will commence soon. Strauss predicted the park to become the second largest outdoor destination in Gatineau and a go-to destination in Québec, thanks to its unique programming.
--Dogs on leashes allowed
While the park’s trails have long been primarily used by off-leash dog walkers – even though it’s technically illegal – Strauss said the park’s vision as an urban park largely focusing on family and education forces the regulation of dogs in the park. Despite proposing a one-kilometre fenced trail for off-leash dog walking, Strauss said the foundation couldn’t find funding for such a project.
To compromise, the plan foresees a near two-fold expansion of the Parc Jardins Lavigne off-leash dog park – adding at least one kilometre of trails – making it one of the largest in the province. The foundation also proposed a one-year pilot project authorizing on-leash dog walking in the forest, that will include a sensitivity campaign, the installation of signage at the park’s entrances and a statistical compilation regarding the project to help Municipal Council decide its fate in the fall of 2021. The new regulation should be ratified by Municipal Council in November.
--How does the foundation reach these goals?
Strauss explained that the city and the foundation initially signed a $40,000 contract in 2017 to elaborate a development plan for the Boucher Forest. Carried out by local firm DDM between September of 2019 and February of 2020, the plan has since evolved, due to financial and natural constraints caused by wetlands.
Costing approximately $1,181 million in total, the project’s planning phase should cost approximately $183,000. Phase one should cost around $750,000, on top of $290,000 for administrative fees – with a 15 to 20 per cent margin of error. Meeting with about a dozen representatives from several community organizations, the foundation got the plan adopted by Municipal Council in 2019. Benefitting from a $785,000 subsidy from the city, Strauss said the foundation invested $140,000 to undertake several tasks to help manage the forest and also received funding from several non-profit organizations.
The next step is attracting funding from the private sector, Strauss said. Planning to contribute $438,000 to the project, the Boucher Forest Foundation has invested $269,000 so far. Costs included characterizing the park’s wetlands (65 per cent of the park), studying the local market and formulating a business plan, developing the park’s management plan, evaluating the park’s trails and installing signs and urban furniture.
In 2019, two professors from l’Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) volunteered to conduct a market study to identify what the population wanted from the park in terms of free and payable programming. It noted that the most desired avenues for activity were hiking, interpretative trails, snowshoeing and biking trails, as well as themed activities like a sugar bush, and youth and adult outdoor education courses. A survey included in the study polling 1,503 participants noted that the top three most important services were trail maps, public bathrooms and parking. Of all the participants, 51 per cent were hikers, 17 per cent were cyclists and 32 per cent were active.
In 2020, another market study conducted by cooperative Convergence was held to find out what kind of payable activities would be of interest in the park. Strauss said the foundation is analyzing the results to establish a business plan for the project’s second phase by Christmas. In the works for a long time, the proper management of the Boucher Forest is included in the city’s Programme du conseil municipal of 2017-2021, the Politique des loisirs des sports et du plein air and its proposed urban planning and revised development scheme (SADR).
---Councillors love what they see
Noting that residents have been awaiting the project for around a decade, Aylmer councillor Audrey Bureau said it’s become more pertinent than ever due to climate change and the value of natural spaces in urban areas. “If the pandemic teaches us anything, it’s the necessity of these natural spaces in cities and the importance of … making more room for urban parks,” Bureau said. But she stressed the importance of deploying the park’s main entrance and a parking lot on rue Samuel-Edey and boulevard des Allumetières as soon as possible to quell circulation issues around the Parc Jardins Lavigne dog park.
For Deschênes councillor Mike Duggan, the presentation, the plan and the proposed programming were all positive and the long-term vision for the park bodes very well for Aylmer’s future. Owning approximately 54 per cent of the forest, the city’s has expressed the desire of acquiring up to 75 per cent of it. Considering that, Duggan believes protecting the forest and developing it to accommodate a diversity of activities is very important for ecology and education. Costing a hefty sum of municipal funding, Duggan praised the foundation for attracting funding from a variety of sources to help pay for the project – adding that requesting support from private investors could be of great benefit to the park and its users. However, he suggested installing a sign indicating the Boucher Forest’s location, noting that plenty of locals aren’t that familiar with it.
Plateau councillor Maude Marquis-Bissonnette applauded the foundation for their work with the project so far, noting that she supports the project and is excited to see what’s next.
While feeling positive about the proposed plan, Lucerne councillor Gilles Chagnon also expressed worries regarding potential circulation issues near Parc Jardins Lavigne.
Based on discussions with neighbourhood residents, Aylmer’s territorial director of services Marc Phaneuf said he doesn’t expect traffic problems in the area. Pleased with the plan, Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin looks forward to the Boucher Forest adding itself to the city’s impressive selection of significant natural public spaces.