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How an accessible adventure trail is helping people of all ages and abilities connect with nature.

What do you do with 43 acres of marsh located in the middle of town? Most municipalities would fill it in for commercial real estate development. But the Town of Oromocto had a different vision for the 17-hectare patch of unruly woods and wetlands tucked behind the town’s high-traffic rotary and eatery district. The plan: to create a unique, urban wetlands conservation area that would encourage people to get outdoors and enjoy nature.

A proposal for a multipurpose education centre and adventure trail was tabled by Oromocto’s Town Council in 2006. But infrastructure priorities and fiscal constraints resulted in the project being shelved for several years.

The community, however, was not about to let the idea fade away. A number of local residents continued to petition for the project, submitting proposals and presentations to Council, as well as various other groups, departments and organizations until the idea once again began to gain traction in 2012.

Local entrepreneur Robin Hanson was among those who recognized early on that the wetlands had an intrinsic value, along with wellness and learning opportunities that could benefit the whole community…provided the whole community could access them.

“Mobility issues are near and dear to my heart,” says Hanson, who recounts watching tour buses pull up to another nearby heritage site and museum, only to leave because the facilities and grounds weren’t accessible to seniors and individuals with mobility issues. Although that situation was eventually rectified, the lesson hit home for Hanson. He realized that if the wetlands project was to be done right, it would have to be a space that everyone could enjoy.

Hanson estimates that about 30% of the community have mobility issues or constraints, from seniors to parents pushing strollers. “Our goal was to get community participation up to almost 100%,” he says. “It’s about awareness. It’s about inspiring people to get out, get involved, and engage with nature. It takes a lot of planning to do it right.”

By 2014, along with the support of local businesses, citizens and patrons, the project had the backing of two major partners: Ducks Unlimited and the Oromocto River Watershed Association. By 2015, the Government of Canada was also on board, committing $62,750 to the project through the Community Improvement Program. Phase One of the Oromocto Gateway Wetland Trail project was officially underway.

The $2.2 million project is being rolled out in three phases. The first two years have focused on trail development and enhancement. The third and final phase, still to be completed, will include the construction of the Conservation Centre that will house a visitor information centre, exhibition and educational space, and a viewing terrace of the wetlands.

Realizing the Town’s vision was not without its challenges. A balance needed to be struck between accommodating the needs and interests of the general public and preserving the natural integrity of the wetland.

“We want it to be accessible,” says Hanson. “We want it to be a family adventure. We want it to be fun and engaging and educational. But we also want to respect nature and keep things extremely natural. There were significant challenges involved with respect to environmental considerations and regulations, but I think we’ve been doing things right so far in that regards.”

The current popularity of the trail, and its thriving ecosystem, seem to support this assertion. The Gateway Adventure Trail now features 300 metres of boardwalk wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and strollers, while still allowing room for joggers and cyclists to pass by. There’s also a covered walking bridge, several carved wooden benches and sculptures along the route, as well as accessible washrooms and ample parking. More enhancements will come during Phase 3 of the project, including plans for another 200 metres of boardwalk, gazebos, picnic shelters, and nature viewing installations…such as a beaver house with a live camera feed, and an osprey nesting tower. A few other improvements have been identified as well to improve the trails’ wheelchair accessibility, by addressing slope angles and trail surface, for example.

The trail is also a vital link in the Town’s Active Transportation Plan for those who walk and cycle to work, and connects to the larger regional adventure trail network created by the Oromocto River Watershed Association.

“The impact on the community has been really, really significant,” says Hanson, who observes the trail being used at all times of the day. “You get the early morning walkers, the dog walkers, the runners. A little later there’s the moms and kids. Then there’s the lunchtime crowd. Schools come for field trips and projects. There are so many learning opportunities—we’ve created an outdoor classroom here,” Hanson enthuses. “As good as any in the country.”

Here, people can engage with nature in a beautiful, peaceful and inclusive environment—a natural oasis in an urban setting. It is, as Hanson points out, a place where you can exercise the mind as well as the body; and engage with art, culture and heritage, as well as nature.

Although it’s still evolving, the Gateway Wetland Adventure Trail is already fulfilling the Town’s vision for an urban conservation area and an inclusive hub for community wellness and learning. Says Hanson: “It’s a gem of education and exercise.”

*Photo credit: Terry Kelly and Jason Nugent, TKP Productions

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