The struggle to protect Ontario's Great Wetlands show a need to restore provincial appointments to Conservation Authority Boards

"Conservation Authorities since 1946 have played a major role in protecting Ontario’s landscape from deforestation and consequently, rescuing the province from the blights of desertification and flooding... Since changes in 1996 which made municipal councils responsible for the appointment of conservation authority boards, they have been weakened to the threats caused by urban sprawl over critical wildlife habitat."

The struggle to rescue two of Ontario’s great wetlands shows the need to restore provincial oversight over our conservation authority boards. This removal previously ensured by the appointment of the chair and four other members to conservation authority boards was one of the worst excesses of the “common sense” revolution of Premier Mike Harris. This change needs to be reversed, along with new provisions in the Conservation Authorities Act to provide for an interim provincial supervisor of boards if found necessary by the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. 

Over the next few weeks the Ontario Legislature’s Committee on Social Policy will be debating the proposed government legislation to reform Conservation Authorities and the Ontario Municipal Board, contained in Bill 139, the Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act. What is most significantly missing in the government’s proposals are provisions to restore a measure of provincial supervision over authorities. The need for such measures is vividly witnessed by the struggle to save the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara and the Minesing Wetlands near Midhurst, in Simcoe County.

Conservation Authorities since 1946 have played a major role in protecting Ontario’s landscape from deforestation and consequently, rescuing the province from the blights of desertification and flooding. Since changes in 1996 which made municipal councils responsible for the appointment of conservation authority boards, they have been weakened to the threats caused by urban sprawl over critical wildlife habitat.

 

Battle #1: Fighting urban sprawl Minesing Wetlands, Simcoe County 

The Minesing Wetlands are frequently called Canada’s Everglades. They are full of amazing wildlife. Unusual species found here include the gigantic Lake Sturgeon, the once endangered Trumpeter Swan, and the threatened Wood Turtle.

There is an endangered species in Minesing Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly, which is found nowhere else in Canada. It is a vernal pool obligate species. In this regards it is similar to the Spring Peepers, Chorus Frogs and Wood Frogs which explode every spring in Minesing in their mating chorus.

Photo of Minesing Wetlands near Midhurst ON, obtained from NVCA website.

The Minesing wetlands are threatened by urban sprawl onto prime farmland around them adjacent to what is now the small village of Midhurst in Springwater Township. The proposed expansion of the village by 30,000 people threatens Minesing with a cesspool of sewage.

The staff of the Nottawsaga Conservation Authority bravely tried to stop sprawl around Midhurst. This resulted in the firings through the municipally controlled board of the General Manager, Wayne Wilson (who had served for 23 years) and a Patti Young, a senior planner.

 

Battle #2: Fighting development in Thundering Waters Forest, Niagara

Similar battles caused by municipal politicians bullying conservation authority staff are witnessed in Niagara over the 483 acre Thundering Waters Forest.  Much like Minesing, most of the wetland is a swamp forest, which in springtime explodes in a musical frog mating chorus. Recently a recent sit-in part of the wetland which still remains vulnerable to development discovered a threatened beautiful prairie wildflower, Dense Blazing Star.

I explained the terrible treatment of the staff of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) in a brief I recently delivered on behalf of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. This was set out a brief to the Ontario legislature’s Committee on Social Policy, concerning Bill 139. In my brief I stressed the crucial work of NPCA staff in securing the protection of the Thundering Waters Forest in a wetland evaluation that went on from 2008 to 2010. This triggered the massive firing of staff by the directors of the conservation authority.

Photo of a wetland in the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Region, obtained from The Media Co-op website.

It is a crucial time to send a clear message to the Ontario government and legislators of all parties. This is to amend Bill 139 in two ways - 1. Restore provisions for five provincially appointed conservation authority board members, one of which should be the Chair; 2. The other is to give the provincial government the power to have interim supervisors manage conservation authorities.

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: Photo of John Bacher (left) and Turtle Clan Mohawk, Elder Danny Beaton, at French's Hill in Waverley, ON


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