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Ontario Government Engaged in Two Dangerous Environmental Consultations

by John Bacher

Area of Thundering Waters Forest that was destroyed in 1992 because old growth forest was not properly protected as significant wetland. Wetlands south of the street, Oldfield Road got rescued in 2010 but are now threatened by proposed policy changes. Photo: Emma Lee Fleury
Area of Thundering Waters Forest that was destroyed in 1992 because old growth forest was not properly protected as significant wetland. Wetlands south of the street, Oldfield Road got rescued in 2010 but are now threatened by proposed policy changes. Photo: Emma Lee Fleury

The government of Ontario is currently engaged in two dangerous  environmental consultations which have the potential to open up protected landscapes in southern Ontario to urban sprawl. One of these consultations involves a review of the Conservation Authorities Act, and seeks to intensify the damage to the legislation wrecked by the nonsensical revolution of Ontario Premier Mike Harris in 1996.  This legislation amended the Conservation Authorities Act to end the practice of the provincial appointment of five members to watershed based authority boards. The resulting change made them captive to property industry influenced municipal councils. The other consultation is directed at subverting  he singular accomplishment of Ontario’s NDP government. This is the province’s  current wetland protection policy, brought into effect in 1992.

Although only introduced to Ontario in 1992, regulation to protect wetlands by investigating  vegetation and developing a point scoring system to protect rare species, emerged two decades earlier in the United States. It was a consequence of the passage of the US Clean Water Act. An American environmental group went to court and subsequently won a decision that the legislation should protect wetlands. These include areas with large areas of swamp forests temporarily flooded in the spring.  Designated wetland once mapped become protected from development, or what is more precisely defined as “site alteration.”

Given the great conflict inherit between the owners of swamp forests and regulators, it was appropriate that the task of mapping and protecting wetlands in the United States is assigned to a military entity, the US Army Corps of Engineers. In Ontario the policy is administered by the public servants employed by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Its distinguished history in becoming an effective conservation agency is the subject of my book, “Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz.” (Dundurn Press, 2011)

Through my involvement in protecting forests in the Niagara Region I quickly became aware of the power of wetland protection after the policy was introduced. In 1993 in Niagara Falls I attended a meeting to announce wetland mapping results in Warrens Creek.

Participating in an evaluation announcement  gave me insights into the power to protect the environment. The wetland evaluator explained how extensive swamp forests here within the urban boundaries of Niagara Falls were  now off limits to development. This was because of the high points obtained in scoring evaluations for two threatened species. These were a vine, the Round-Leaved Greenbrier, and a tree, the Black Gum (also known as Swamp Tupelo).

It cheered me very much to see the faces of the landowners when confronted with the evaluator’s findings. They asked if they had any appeal rights. The evaluator said no and they meekly accepted his words.  Development has since taken place in the Warren Creek watershed, but it carefully avoided forested swamps, rich in vernal (temporary)  pools which provide spring time breeding habitat for amphibians. Of the three sites in Niagara Falls that support the threatened Greenbrier, it is the only one that myself and a close friend Jean Grandoni, did not have to battle to rescue from development.

Understanding the power of Ontario’s wetland protection system helped me in 2008 when the issue of the the threat to the remarkable five hundred acre Thundering Waters Forest emerged then through a proposed amendment to the City of Niagara Falls Official Plan. I appealed the amendment to the Ontario Municipal Board. (OMB)

After my OMB appeal was filed I was contacted by the solicitor of the developer, Ed Lustig. He initiated a mediation process . At his suggestion, I withdrew my appeal on the basis of the then Ministry of Natural Resources being given, if they requested, access to the site to do a wetland evaluation.

The developer honoured the agreement. The ministry, accompanied by ecological consultants of the developer and staff on the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, (NPCA) did over a period of two years a re-evaluation of the wetland complex. At  the time it was deemed to be only locally significant and therefore vulnerable to development.

During the re-evaluations two important discoveries were made. One was the presence of a species, regionally rare in the Hamilton-Niagara area, the Blue Spotted Salamander. Another was a discovery of  Black Gum. The confirmation that these rare species are present pushed the points scoring above 600 so that the wetland’s status was changed from locally to provincially significant.

As soon as the victory was won protecting what became identified as the Niagara Falls Slough Forest provincially significant wetland developers’ began to seek revenge. They went after  not those  of the more well protected staff of MNR but on the vulnerable NPCA. 

A “strategic plan” for the NPCA was launched, with advisory committees filled with consultants who had sought to develop on the now protected Niagara Falls Slough Forest.  The resulting plan justified staff terminations and a reallocation of resources within the NPCA. Mid-way through the process the Lower Welland River watershed plan was terminated.  One result of the turmoil was the unionization of NPCA staff through OPSEU.

Not content with warring with the staff of the NPCA developers began lobbying over  provincial policy and legislation. One target was the Conservation Authorities Act, which is still undergoing a review. The aspect of this review that developers were seeking was a transfer of the authority for mapping wetlands from MNRF to local conservation authorities.

Mid-way through the review, the province issued a white paper on changes to the Conservation Authorities Act. This rejected the changes that responsibility for mapping wetlands be transferred to local conservation authorities.

Developer pressure also motivated the province to launch a review of provincial wetland policy. The key focus of the wetland policy consultation paper was a proposal for what was termed “bio-diversity offsetting.”  Although the discussion document did not mention protected significant wetlands, it did go into considerable detail about recreating vanished wetlands in order to legitimate the position of “no net loss.”  It has been widespread experience in the United States, that while marshes are not difficult to be recreated, that swamp forests requiring twenty years before mature tree cover can be established, are much more challenging.

While proposals to harmfully modify the Conservation Act appear to have been defeating the threat of “biodiversity offsetting”, still endures. Mid-way through the consultation there was a specific proposal to use the Thundering Waters Forest as a “pilot study” for offsetting, which intensified public opposition in Niagara.  This outrage however, did not cause the provincial government to abandon the concept. The persistence of developer lobbying  was revealed on August 8, 2016. Then the draft “Wetland Policy for Ontario” document was released. It triggers a second 100 day consultation period, which ends November 16, 2016.

The bad essence of the draft “Wetland Policy of Ontario” is buried in a midst of a lot of pretty pictures, such as an “urban wetland”, (actually in the tiny town of Midland), below the Martyrs’ shrine. Next to this holy image, we get a diabolical text, which sets the stage for opening up now protected wetlands to despoliation by developers. It reads:

“Some site, features and habitats, such as provincially significant wetlands, may be ineligible for offsetting based on, for example, their biological and hydrological attributes, their vulnerability or irreplaceability etc. 

Since 1992 all provincially significant wetlands are “ineligible for offsetting.” The draft “Wetland Policy” advocates that this be changed to permit “Some” to be destroyed through offsetting to accommodate developers.

To protect precious wetlands before November 16. 2016 send a simple message to the government Ontario through the email address ConservingWetlands@ontario.ca. This should be that offsetting remain prohibited on provincially significant wetlands.

 

 

 

 


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leela_scott (Leela Scott)
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