AGAINST the plains speckled with industry and subdivisions that flow out for miles from the skyscrapers of Toronto, the gray cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment rise like a tidal wave of stone.
Jutting vertically hundreds of feet from the flat landscape, this 450-mile-long ridge of rock formed by an ancient sea has become a focal point for one of Canada's most hotly contested environmental questions: How much more escarpment land should be carved up and sold to developers, individuals, and industry?
As early as 1973, the woods, trails, and wildlife of the escarpment - a gentle slope on one side that leads to a steep scarp on the other - were recognized as things to be protected for future generations. Scores of parks were created.
In 1986, Ontario's legislature enshrined in law Canada's first large-scale environmental land-use plan to prevent escarpment overdevelopment.
Even so, environmentalists and politicians today contend that aggregate pit-mining, timber-cutting, and home-building have heavily damaged the escarpment during the last decade. Much land has been lost, they say, partly because individuals who favor development were appointed to the 17-member commission governing escarpment land use, overriding or ignoring protective provisions.
Now, during critical public hearings that are part of a once-in-five-years review of the Niagara Escarpment Plan, environmental forces have gone on the offensive, sensing a political shift in their favor. Property-rights proponents, meanwhile, argue that "preservationists" are serving only their own ends. Final written arguments will be filed by opposing forces by early next month. Sometime this fall, a new escarpment plan will be adopted by the provincial cabinet.
"I think people have taken it for granted that the escarpment was protected [in 1986] and may be surprised or concerned that its protection has been eroded by [development] approvals given over the last five years," says Ruth Grier, Ontario's minister of environment, who is charged with reviewing the proposals. "The threat is continuing piecemeal erosion."
Hope has sprung up among environmentalists because a recently revamped escarpment commission riding a "green wave" of public support is proposing even stricter land-use regulations. The new rules have a good chance of being approved by the provincial government, several observers here contend.
The escarpment is within easy driving distance of 5 million of Ontario's 9 million residents. Simple proximity has made its parks, fields, and trails - particularly the 450-mile Bruce Trail - an alluring island of green in a sea of human development. Its cliffs are a daily beacon to motorists traveling west from Toronto.
"There are places in the Northwest Territories, the Arctic and sub-Arctic where a lot of wilderness still exists, but a lot of people simply can't get to it because of the cost," says Pat Keough. He and his wife, Rosemarie, are among Canada's best-known landscape photographers. Together they produced a best-selling photographic book on the escarpment in 1990.
"As they zip along at 100 kilometers an hour they see this white cliff," says Mrs. Keough. "Most probably don't know what they're looking at, but this cliff, with its old-growth forest, represents something unique right in their own backyard."
In the microwilderness of the escarpment, naturalists have found half of Canada's endangered species amid more than 300 species of birds, 53 kinds of mammals, 36 reptiles and amphibians, and hundreds of varieties of flora, including 37 types of wild orchid.
Such diversity entices Douglas Larson to frequently strap on a nylon climbing harness anchored to a long rope and climb out over the edge of the escarpment to hang suspended scores of feet from the ground. The ariel acrobatics, Dr. Larson explains, are required to study his particular passion: the ancient trees of what appears to be eastern North America's oldest virgin forest, which runs the length of the escarpment. In 1988, Larson, a professor of botany at the University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ontario,
discovered that some of the trees rooted in the thin soil of the escarpment's cracks and ledges were hundreds of years old.
Even as Larson was researching his ancient forest, the escarpment was recognized internationally as a unique interface between urban life and wildlife. In February 1990, the escarpment was identified as a World Biosphere Reserve. (See related story.) The designation, intended to highlight a unique area of flora and fauna in close proximity to urban or dense human population, puts the Niagara Escarpment under the same designation as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the Galapagos Islands in the Pac ific Ocean, and Everglades National Park in Florida.
"The escarpment plan should become a prototype for other jurisdictions outside of Ontario, perhaps outside of Canada," says Cecil Louis, assistant executive director of the Escarpment Commission. "It has become clear in many jurisdictions that the existing means of preserving important environments are not working properly."
Others agree that the escarpment plan - a concept of political conservatives in the late 1960s - is in its present form a possible model for resolving similar controversies across Canada.
"As we wrestle with how we deal with pressures in other areas, people look to the escarpment plan as an example of how it's being done," says Mrs. Grier. Such models are needed to handle the passions that run as deeply among those committed to property rights as they do among those favoring land preservation.
"A lot of these people [the environmentalists] have this idea you should be able to see for miles and miles without seeing a new building," says William Murdoch, a farmer and member of the provincial parliament who resides in Grey County, an important fruit-growing region that has become the epicenter of the battle.
Mr. Murdoch is leading the fight to allow property owners to sell their land whenever, and to whomever, they wish. The sticking point is that the escarpment plan limits whether, and how much, land can be sold, frequently limiting it to none at all. "I don't know too many people who don't want to protect the escarpment," Murdoch says. "We get painted as a group that wants to tear it down."
Marion Taylor, director of environmental affairs for the 15,000-member Federation of Ontario Naturalists, responds in essence that if the shoe fits, Murdoch should wear it. "How are we going to go about making sure any [endangered land] survives?" she asks. "In Ontario we have the [escarpment] Planning Act. But these are guidelines and recommendations. There are no requirements on municipalities, no monitoring.... The plan review is a test for the province as to whether there is a will to put environment
Margaret Reed, an escarpment resident who cares as much for its history as for its environment, has given historical tours of her property to school children for 20 years. She would like the province to designate her land as a special educational site.
"I've been fighting for 20 years for this particular spot which is absolutely packed with legend, history, Indian lore," she says. The sprightly, white-haired Mrs. Reed speaks of a long-vanished tribe of Indians who left traces near the cliff face, and other features.
"You've got the lost treasure cave, the ice cave, and the magic water spring," she says, reciting the list like a prosecutor citing evidence in a trial. That, she says, should be more than enough to gain official recognition.
There is a constant demand for people to "get into contact with nature, to get in touch with their roots," Reed says.
Photographer Rosemarie Keough amplifies that sentiment: "Now, with so many people wanting solitude, here is this ribbon of wilderness winding through one of the most densely populated areas of Canada."