Ontario Government Proposes Weak Agricultural and Natural Heritage System Mapping Frameworks for new Growth Plan

"The Growth Plan was intended to foster a more restrictive regulatory framework than the Provincial Policy Statement. This hope is clearly threatened for the two proposed mapping policies now under review."

Currently, the Ontario government is conducting an important exercise for the mapping of agricultural and natural heritage systems1 for the Growth Plan. This is an area from Simcoe County to Niagara, which has a different layer of protection than what supposed to be the minimal standards of the Planning Act’s Provincial Policy Statement (PPS). The proposed criteria may weaken existing mapping policies contained in municipal plans based on the PPS.  

What is disturbing about the proposed mapping criteria for agriculture lands is that it suggests new economic criteria for determining the designations of varied agricultural designations. Currently there are basically three agricultural designations for the Growth Plan’s rural areas. These are Specialty Crop, Good General Agricultural lands and Rural lands.

If the recommendations are adopted, all of these agricultural designations which in the past have been based on soil and climate, will consider other factors such as distance to market. This offers the dangerous prospect of more intense severance activity, which can encourage water pollution through the need to rely on septic tanks, in the booming Growth Plan’s rural landscape.

Also disturbing is the “Proposed Regional Natural Heritage System for the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.” It does not propose to map any natural areas within urban boundaries. These are under the greatest threat from land developers. Their plans would wipe them out and in the process, eliminate thousands of acres of biologically diverse Carolinian forests. These are now habitats to many endangered species, now most notably bats, which require extensive areas of relatively undisturbed mature forests to survive.

The threats to the extensive natural areas within urban boundaries that were highlighted in a decade of political debate over proposals, just rejected in a recent government announcement that confirmed existing wetland protection policies in place since 1991. This debate erupted over what was termed “biodiversity offsetting”.

The wetland policy review over offsetting (meaning destruction authorized by alleged replacement) was prompted by demands of the Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce. Supported by the Town of Fort Erie, it called for the removal of prohibitions of development on wetlands within its urban boundaries. It was later championed by would be developers of the 483 acres Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls.

Upgraded wetland in Thundering Waters Forest, Niagara. (Photo credit: Adrin J Willems, obtained from The Media Co-op website.)

The wetlands in Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, and Port Colborne which were targeted for destruction by “offsetting”, are now threatened by the natural heritage mapping. Although the natural heritage mapping cannot remove policies that protect wetlands, it would make adjacent dry forests vulnerable to development.

Dry forests are currently protected to some degree through requirements for Environmental Impact Studies (EIS). Such EIS studies must examine possible loss of ecological function before development of forests can be permitted. This is governed through the natural heritage policies of the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS).

The existing policies of the PPS are threatened by the quite high bar for a forest, or other natural area, to be considered for mapping protection under the proposed Growth Plan model. The PPS has policies in areas of relatively low forest cover of around twenty per cent as significant forests of four hectares. In places of severe deforestation, such as the heavily denuded “whitebelt” lands around Greater Toronto, forests of two hectares are seen as provincially significant. However, it is being proposed that to map core natural heritage areas for the Growth Plan, a size of 100 hectares is required. The proposed mapping by excluding small forests shows large swaths of the Growth Plan area - especially its western fringes - as being without any protective natural heritage mapping.

Whitebelt lands take up almost 46,000 hectares in GGH, primarily located in the Regional Municipalities of Peel, Halton, and Durham (obtained from Neptis Foundation website.)

The Growth Plan which applies to regions in south central Ontario experiencing the most intense increases in human population was intended to foster a more restrictive regulatory framework than the PPS. This hope is clearly threatened for the proposed mapping policies now under review.

To provide your input for this proposal, please register to attend the two remaining public information sessions and submit comments by October 4th via the environmental registry: Agricultural System mapping and Natural Heritage System mapping.

(1)The Natural Heritage System (NHS) plan builds outward from the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Greenbelt Plans, and typically includes natural features such as woodlands, wetlands, watercourses and valleylands that provide society with ecosystem services that are life sustaining or improve quality of life. These include a clean and reliable supply of groundwater and surface water; flood moderation; erosion control; moderation of air quality; pollination services; genetic resources for food, medicine, fibre or other products; and recreation opportunities. The NHS is made up of three components: (1) natural heritage features, (2) their buffers, and (3) natural heritage areas. (Obtained from Credit Valley Conservation website)

This article was written by Dr. John Bacher, Greenbelt Campaign leader at Sierra Club Ontario and a member of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS).

Blog image "How rich is your community" outlines the economic value of ecosystem services provided by Ontario's natural heritage (obtained from Ontario Nature website.)



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