124 groups call on Ford government to develop strategy for protected lands
A group of over 100 organizations is reigniting a move to have the Ontario government safeguard much more land across the province from development or industrial use, following dormant recommendations from the provincially appointed Protected Areas Working Group two years ago.
In the spring of 2021, the Ford government, through the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), established a working group to “identify opportunities to protect and conserve more natural areas in order to enhance the province's natural diversity and provide more recreational opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors.”
Following the four recommendations from the working group would ensure the protection of 30 percent of Ontario by 2030.
(Ontario Protected Areas Working Group)
By the end of the year, the working group had produced a report with four major recommendations after Ontario fell to eighth in Canada for proportional protected area — only 3,000 hectares were brought into Ontario’s protected designation between 2016 and 2021 compared to 20 million hectares across the rest of the country. While the PC government has, during its time in power, worked diligently to “cut the red tape” for housing and infrastructure to support development, encroaching into vital greenspace, the report remained confidential for two years as little work on the file was completed.
After the reshuffling of provincial cabinet ministers following the release of the Integrity Commissioner and Auditor General investigations into the Greenbelt scandal, a collective of 124 organizations — environmental advocacy groups, community groups, and recreational clubs — are challenging the MECP to develop a Made-in-Ontario Protected and Conserved Areas Strategy with a minimum investment of $100 million per year over four years to facilitate and manage safeguarded lands.
“Faced as we are with unprecedented and accelerating levels of biodiversity loss and ever spiraling climate change impacts, the need to expand protected and conserved areas in Ontario has never been more urgent,” Anne Bell, director of conservation and education at Ontario Nature, one of the signatory organizations, said. “They offer an immediate, tangible approach to conserving the plants, animals and ecosystems that sustain us and to enhancing our resilience to climate change.”
Conserving natural areas is one way to work toward mitigation and adaptation around the impacts of climate change while simultaneously promoting biodiversity, protecting habitats of species at risk and improving resilience to extreme weather events. It is one of the key measures supported by municipalities, conservation authorities and other organizations province-wide in an age when the impacts of climate change are impossible to ignore.
Last month, the research arm of the United Nations published disturbing findings of the world reaching environmental “tipping points”. The UN University's Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) declared that over-extraction and overuse of resources coupled with climate change has pushed the planet to the brink of six tipping points with the potential to “trigger abrupt changes in our life-sustaining systems and shake the foundation of societies.”
The caution from the UN came a day after another ominous warning from a team of 12 international researchers who published in the journal Biosciences that the Earth is reaching “unchartered territory” and that climate change could threaten the lives of six billion people this century.
In Ontario, over 230 species are listed as endangered or threatened, with the number rapidly increasing due to climate change and habitat loss.
Previous investigations from provincial watchdogs have emphasized that the Ford government has failed to provide a long-term plan to ensure the health of its parks and other protected spaces. In 2020, former Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk concluded the MECP did not know enough about the state of biodiversity within its protective areas to know if it is meeting its legislated targets.
“The Environment Ministry does not collect sufficient information on species at risk and invasive species, or on the impact of hunting, fishing and trapping on native species in provincial parks and conservation reserves,” a press release following the release of the audit stated.
The following year, Lysyk published another blistering audit on the province’s failure to protect species at risk under legislation that came forth in 2008.
A collection of the species identified in The Pointer’s investigation which are impacted by multiple development applications across Ontario.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Previous reporting by The Pointer also found the Ontario government refuses to study cumulative impacts on species at risk, creating more potential harm across the province.
Since the PCs came to power five years ago, and particularly last year, the threat to greenspace has increased exponentially as the province continues to chip away at conservation authorities, wetland protection and the Greenbelt, planning to develop lands that builders are pushing to encroach into.
Bill 229 was promoted to help the province recover from the pandemic but it contains the highly contentious Schedule 6 which waters down the mandate of conservation authorities and gives the Ontario government the power to force a conservation authority to provide a development permit even if conditions that threaten ecosystems and watersheds, which would have previously been red-flagged, are created by the project.
Then Bill 23 was passed late last year, further dismantling the mandate of conservation authorities, repealing 36 regulations in the Act that governs them, taking away their power to guide the development process. “Pollution” and “conservation of land” are no longer viable criteria for consideration when evaluating the potential risk of a new development.
In the same stroke of the pen, the PCs made dramatic changes to the Wetland Evaluation System (WES) increasing the availability of sensitive wetland habitats for development. Under the WES, prior to the amendments that came with Bill 23, wetlands were assessed on a scale of zero to 1,000 and a score of 600 or higher provided the designation of provincial significance, shielding the area from development. Since the passing of the Bill, evaluation criteria has been altered, making it substantially more difficult for a wetland to reach protected status. Among the list of changes, the presence of endangered species no longer provides evaluation points to a wetland.
Under previous versions of the WES, the amalgamation of smaller bodies of water, known as a wetland complex, could be scored as a group and if the entire complex scored over 600, each piece would be protected. The changes eliminate the concept of a wetland complex, evaluating each pond and wetland individually, no matter how small or how interconnected with others, resulting in a large number of small wetlands now vulnerable to development.
Land across the province, especially in the southern reaches surrounding the GTHA, also stand to be eaten up by highways, projects greenlit by Minister’s Zoning Orders, municipal urban boundary expansions forced by the PCs and other piecemeal legislation with the intent to increase sprawling residential development and other projects being pushed by investors who stand to profit from the land.
Bell stated that the failure to recognize the ecological, social and economic value of these protected lands is not inherently a conservative trait. In fact, conservative premiers of Ontario’s past have provided some of the biggest expansions to protected areas.
“I want to point out that this particular conservative government doesn't have a good track record. But previous conservative governments do,” she said.”
Conservation authorities have long been known for their role in protecting Ontarians from flood risk with much of their mandate stemming from the aftermath of the disastrous Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which flooded most of downtown Brampton (above).
(Region of Peel Archives)
Conservation authorities were created under the conservative government of George A. Drew in 1946. Following the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, he significantly increased their mandate, expanding protections to natural areas across the province.
Conservative premier Bill Davis, who held office from 1971 to 1985, was perhaps one of the most successful in marrying the ideas of economic growth and environmental protection. During his time in power, Davis nearly quadrupled the province’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But while recognizing the province was growing, he also stepped in to save the Niagara Escarpment from commercial development, establishing the Niagara Escarpment Commision which would protect these lands and serve as an intervener on development applications.
Mike Harris, who served Ontario as premier from 1995 to 2002, and gutted the province’s two largest public institutions, education and healthcare, simultaneously enhanced greenland protection and sustainability. In 2001, he ushered in the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, protecting some of Ontario’s most vital farmland and sensitive habitats. Prior to that he helped ensure the long-term health of six-million acres of land, mostly under the Ontario Parks umbrella.
“There's nothing in their political DNA that dances away, it's quite the contrary,” Bell said. “And if [the Ford government] were willing to implement the recommendations of their working group, it would have a tremendous impact, because they hold the key to opening the door to protection.”
Data from the working group also show that support for enhanced protection is not synonymous only with left leaning parties. Over 50 percent of respondents from each of the four major political parties in the province (PC, Liberal, NDP and Green) support the creation of more protected areas. Reasons Ontarians believe protected areas are important include, among others, wildlife protection (69 percent), recreation (63 percent), sustainability for future generations (60 percent), clean water (58 percent), wetland protection (57 percent) and climate change (57 percent), according to the report.
Increasing protected areas does more than promote habitat for species at risk, these areas also play crucial roles in mitigation and adaptation of climate change and enhance overall well-being for all people who benefit from better environmental quality and, for those who choose, from interacting with nature.
Achieving these goals requires collaboration with different levels of government (including Indigenous governance) and non-government organizations. Examples of these opportunities include enhancing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, Provincially Significant Wetlands on Crown lands, and marine protected areas, all of which can contribute to an increase in protected areas.
The province can also work with private landowners to create easements or designate Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures (OECM) which include any site that can be managed to achieve conservation outcomes, like other protected areas, but without the initial purpose of conservation. OECMs allow for many more land areas to be considered for conservation.
The Ontario government has invested minimal funding in protected areas while it continues to chip away at vital farmland and greenspace through its development policies and practices.
(The Pointer files)
Ontario has made efforts such as the Greenlands Conservation Partnership which, since 2020, has aided partner organizations in securing, restoring and managing new and protected wetlands, grasslands and forested areas. The Partnership represents the largest provincial investment to acquire private land across Ontario. Since 2020, the government has invested $38 million in the partnership with another $14 million promised in 2023. But that investment falls far short of the $400 million the Working Group is recommending in order to responsibly increase protected areas across the province.
Ontario is falling toward the bottom of the pack, with only 11 percent of lands protected. Last year at COP15, the international annual conference on biodiversity, nations agreed to the 30 by 30 framework which solidifies the goal of reaching 30 percent of land and water areas protected by 2030. Under Canada’s commitment to this goal, Ontario is responsible for increasing protected areas in the province to 30 percent, from 11 that are currently protected, in seven years.
“It requires a desperate commitment from Ontario and a strategy to achieve the target starting basically today,” Bell said. “As the working group pointed out, if Ontario were to start now, we could play a leadership role. But we can't hold up.Two years have already been lost since that report never came out.”
One of the benefits of starting from the bottom is that Ontario has the opportunity to look to other provinces and territories for strategies for success.
Earlier this month, the Government of British Columbia announced a new tripartite agreement with the Government of Canada and the First Nations Leadership Council, allocating $1 billion from existing programs toward increasing protected areas across the province. The move comes as BC is striving to double its protected areas in order to meet the 30 percent target by 2030.
The partnership is an opportunity for the westernmost province to turn the tables as its governments have increasingly shied away from conservation and species at risk protection.
The threeway agreement also serves as guidance for the rest of Canada to work closely with Indigenous leaders and groups in order to enhance protected spaces, a partnership that Bell said is absolutely critical.
“Engagement and consent of indigenous communities are essential,” she said, “given that any new protected area beyond their ancestral lands would have implications for their constitutional and inherent rights.”
According to polling completed by the Working Group, the majority of Ontarians across the province support the creation of new protected areas by Indigenous groups. While support is slightly lower for an added dimension, there is still support across the province — with the exception of eastern Ontario where voters are evenly split — for Indigenous management of protected spaces.
(Ontario Protected Areas Working Group)
The circle of organizations have come together to put pressure on the Ontario government to act in the best interest of the environment, but also, using data, to do what’s best for the long-term interests of Ontarians. Perhaps most notably, the working group concluded that the majority of Ontario residents want to see protected areas increase, even if the creation of more parks and other spaces means measures like higher taxes (41 percent). With the wide support of constituents, the onus is on the provincial government to act.
“There are many positive paths that the government could take,” Bell said. “Generally speaking, we need them to make a commitment. And we need them to have a strategy and we need them to implement that strategy. And we need them to invest.”
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