Ontario Greenbelt Under Attack
Ecologically Illiterate Adjudicators Threaten Southern Ontario’s Restored Forests
By Dr. John Bacher
Southern Ontario’s largely human-restored forests now face an unusual threat. This is that of the ecologically illiterate adjudicator. These adjudicators come in two different sources. One is a provincially appointed member of the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT). The other is a federally appointed judge to whom their decisions can be appealed.
The fate of Southern Ontario’s woodlands is controlled by municipally elected councils, often heavily influenced by developers interested in paving them over. Municipal councils, in addition to their zoning powers over private land, also own extensive forest areas. Many of them were developed with the province in a partnership called the Agreement Forest program. Now administered only by municipalities, it planted trees from 1923 to 1995. Adjudicators are the only recourse for citizens who care for forests and seek to appeal council decisions.
Historically and ecologically illiterate adjudicators fail to recognize that southern Ontario’s forests, apart from a few protected old-growth wonders, have been overwhelmingly nurtured by humans in the last 118 years in response to an ecological crisis. The critical time was in 1905 when a Chief Forester of Ontario, Edmund Zavitz, undertook a significant tree planting on the barren Oak Ridges Moraine. This led him to be honored as the Father of Reforestation in Ontario.
Terrible desertification on the Oak Ridges Moraine caused Zavitz to undertake his pilot tree planting project here, on a farm owned by his maternal relatives. Attempting to plant crops on land best suited for pasture resulted in widespread erosion on the glacial moraine.
Before Zavitz planted his first tree, desertification had been an important factor in the extirpation of the Atlantic Salmon from Lake Ontario. It had been the most abundant home in the world for this prized fish. The cold-water streams that it required had been fouled by polluted sediment from tree slaughter.
Flooding from one of the streams with headwaters in sand-covered moraine destroyed a salmon hatchery on Wilmot Creek. Brook Trout appeared on the way to expiration from the southern part of the province since the lack of shade along streams had caused its habitat to be overly heated. Streams would massively flood in the spring and dry up in the summer.
Large areas of former farmland were turned into deserts from the stripping of tree cover, even fertile lands such as in Prince Edward County. Here, apple orchards became buried in marching sand. Flooding frequently inundated the cores of major cities, such as London, Brampton, Brantford, Guelph, and Port Hope. When Zavitz opened his first tree nursery at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) Campus in Guelph, the community was cut off from the world by floods for several days. Wildlife populations were decimated, even deer, now a common species in Southern Ontario. Deer had become rare since its forest homes were now all cut down.
Restoring forest cover in southern Ontario was torturous for Zavitz and his small band of disciples. Most of them were OAC alumni, who included a cabinet minister, Nelson Monteith, and his friend E. C. Drury, who served as Premier from 1919 to 1923. Seven members of Drury’s cabinet were OAC (now University of Guelph) Alumni.
Although one of the few things that Drury and his successor Howard Ferguson could agree upon was the need to restore Southern Ontario’s forests, they faced an uphill struggle. For forty years, they could just hold the line and keep through massive plantings, nine percent of the region covered in tree cover. The big boost in forest cover, which expanded from 9.7 to 25.3 percent, did not come until the years between 1943 and 1963. The big change was legislation in 1946, which created the basis for conservation authorities and empowered municipal governments to have tree protection by-laws to protect forests on private lands.
The first Agreement Forest, called the Hendrie Tract, was established under Drury’s leadership as Premier in 1922 on lands that were, at the time, a desertified wasteland dominated by ugly White Pine stumps. It met the minimum size of 1,000 acres required for the program, calculated on the size needed to justify a full time custodian who would live on site and guard it. This became the nucleus of the Simcoe County Forests, now 150 tracts covering 33,000 acres.
The crown jewel of the Agreement Forest program was the Larose Forest (named in honor of an agronomist, Ferdinand Larose). Unlike the Simcoe County Forest, widely dispersed over one of southern Ontario’s largest counties stretching from Georgian Bay to Lake Simcoe, the Larose Forest, east of Ottawa, is in one large contiguous block of 180 square kilometers. It was reforested over a sandy wasteland, the Bourget Desert, which had been bereft of wildlife. It is now a haven for wildlife requiring large forest tracks, such as Moose, Wood Duck, the Sora Rail, Virginia Rail, the American Bittern, Otter, Fisher, Porcupine, and Red Headed and Pileated Woodpeckers. The vast block of unbroken forest has made it one of the last nesting areas in Ontario for the Evening Grosbeak.
The wonders of the Larose Forest display vividly the threat to woodlands across southern Ontario by ecologically illiterate adjudicators. After the province terminated the Agreement Forest program, the United Counties of Prescott and Rusell, the owners of the Larose Forest, attempted to sell a three-hundred-acre block of it for an outdoor theater. The new proposed use required a zoning change, which was appealed to a predecessor of LPAT, the Ontario Municipal Board. (OMB). The appeal was launched by one of Canada’s oldest environmental protection groups, the Ottawa Field Naturalists.
The ecological illiteracy of the OMB was displayed by the approval of the theater in the heart of the Larose Forest. Fortunately, the theater was never constructed, and the land was not sold but remains within the Larose Forest. As the Ottawa Field Naturalists had in vain suggested to the OMB, the theater complex was built on nearby marginal farmland without environmental damage.
To save the Larose Forest, the Ottawa Field Naturalists persuaded the theater proponents to choose another site. This was helped in that the theater aimed to celebrate Franco-Ontarians’ struggles, one of which was to rescue a Bourget Desert. The Ottawa Field Naturalist now has an annual Ferdinand Larose award to honor local champions of environmental protection as part of this successful dialogue with the French-speaking community of Eastern Ontario.
The OMB’s ecological illiteracy in the Larose Forest was followed in the case of the David Dunlap Forest in Richmond Hill, the only provincially significant woodland in the municipality south of the Oak Ridges Moraine. Being the only large forest block between the urban belt north of Toronto and the Oak Ridges Moraine made it an important refuge for migrating songbirds. It also provided a wintering habitat for the Barred Owl. The forest also became important for deer, a unique wooded refuge in a deforested landscape, stunning many urban residents by their frequent presence.
The David Dunlap Forest was created slowly from 1938 to 1980, with tree planting ending when the University of Toronto began to consider selling the property, which was the location of an observatory, to a developer. The initial planting was conducted by an organization dominated by World War One veterans, Men of the Trees.
Men of the Trees’ campaigns led to the passage in 1946 of both the Conservation Authorities Act and the Trees Act (which finally protected forests on private lands). These measures were critical to Zavitz’s success in tripling forest cover in southern Ontario. The forest protected the David Dunlap Observatory (where black holes were discovered) from light pollution, notably car headlights.
The David Dunlap reforestation success was one of the few objectives of the Don Watershed Plan of 1948 (carried out by the new conservation authorities created through the recent legislation). This had more ambitious plans that were difficult to implement in a rapidly urbanizing watershed.
The OMB ruled against the Richmond Hill Naturalists in two hearings, the first on the Official Plan the second concerning the zoning bylaw. The eighty-five-hectare forest was reduced in half through their decisions.
In its initial decision, the OMB ruled that any concerns over ecological damage caused by the official plan could be mitigated by the final zoning bylaw. When the Richmond Hill Field Naturalists took this advice and appealed the zoning bylaw to the OMB, they lost and were penalized. They were hit by the OMB adjudicator with a $30,000 cost award.
It is tragic to see the impact of the cost award by the OMB on the Richmond Hill Naturalists. They were a model civic-minded organization dedicated to thinking globally but acting locally to protect the earth. Their formally magnificent activism dedicated to protecting forest cover vanished, and in effect, its activities became confined to environmental education through activities such as bird counts.
Adjudicators-imposed cost awards are the silent but terrible weapon of those who profit from the destruction of Southern Ontario’s restored forests. This can be seen in the impact of the citizen movement to protect the Rouge Valley, which led to the creation of Canada’s first urban national park, the Rouge National Park. Thousands of people would attend the rallies and meetings of Scarborough City Council. All this vanished after the OMB imposed a cost award on the leader of Friend of the Rouge, Jim Robb.
The machinations of adjudicators are the reality behind the recent removal of the biggest block of the Greenbelt, the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve. It was created in 1994 (before the Greenbelt’s creation) to protect Rouge National Park. Had the Friends of the Rouge remained at its previous peak of people power, before Robb was hit by the OMB with a cost award, it would be impossible to imagine the most obdurate provincial government changing zoning to urbanize this area.
Problems with adjudicators’ eco-illiteracy are terribly evident in the ongoing battle to protect an 182-acre forest known as the Simcoe County Forest Frelle Tract. Planted in 1948, the now 78-year-old woodland has assumed some of the biodiverse wonders of an old-growth forest, a characteristic it shares with parts of the Larose Forest. Its success is typical of the explosion of forest cover in Southern Ontario after the 1946 reforms secured by Edmund Zavitz.
Although initially planted with Red Pine, thinning has produced a mixed forest where Sugar Maples are the dominant species. It provides breeding habitat for the Spotted Salamander and the federally endangered Chorus Frog. Also provides a refuge for several declining bird species, which require large woodland tracts, most notably three species at risk. These are the Red Shouldered Hawk, the Wood Thrush, and the Eastern Wood Pewee. The mature forest also provides a habitat for two species of bats, which need mature woodlands for roosting. Its wetlands are dominated by a declining native species, the Rufus Bullrush, which in much of Southern Ontario has been replaced by an invasive Phragmites that is harmful to wildlife.
The threat to the Freele Tract comes from Simoce County’s determination to use it for the location of a waste transfer station and processing plant. This emerged out of the criteria that Simcoe County used to determine the best site for the proposal, which ignored ecological considerations such as biodiversity and instead focused on mitigating the noise and pollution impacts on humans. This ignores how factories that cause such emissions and noise are normally put into urban industrially zoned lands, not forests.
The ecologically illiterate approach of Simcoe County was dutifully reflected in the decision on the fate of the Freele Tract made by LPAT adjudicator, its Vice-Chair, Sharyn Vincent. In her decision, Vincent established a novel land use planning doctrine that industrial uses are best put into forests. She ruled that “the natural screening afforded to the site has been to minimize exposure or impacts on sensitive receptors, health and safety on a local scale while providing a broader community with respect to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and the associated impacts on public health.”
Vincent did acknowledge that the two qualified expert witnesses, “Ms. Young” and “Mr. Konze” called by the Friends of Simcoe County Forests did speak on “how the health and integrity” of the Freele Tract Forest was threatened by the spread of invasive species. They testified that these could be encouraged by establishing a new road and a waste processing facility on a 5.5-hectare tract within the woodland. Vincent, however, dismissed these concerns without indicating what experts who testified for the County had to say about important threats to biodiversity. Ignored were dangers such as the replacement of native Rufus Bullrush with invasive Phragmites.
Throughout her decision, Vincent downplays concerns about the loss of 5.5 hectares in the Freele Tract with reference to the large 33,000 acres of County Forests. She also referred to the larger area of privately owned woodlands protected by the Simcoe County Official Plan from Georgian Bay to Lake Simcoe. This approach was used to justify claims of expanding forests on other County Forest tracts despite the Friends evidence that they “are not physically connected to the Freele Tract.”
The Friends of Simcoe County Forests sought Leave to Appeal to review Vincent’s decision. This was rejected in a brief two-paragraph decision. In essence, it confirmed that factories in forests serve the public good. In a more threatening way, the decision threatened the Friends with a cost award, stating that the decision on this matter was “reserved.” This gave him the right in the future to impose costs should his decision be appealed to a higher court.
Ontario’s forest recovery and the new threat from developers seeking to pave them over is an untold story. The role played by ecologically illiterate adjudicators in this threat to recovery has been ignored.
Mohawk Elder Speaks Out
Everything John is saying is true. It is a sad story of environmental degradation by the provincial government, a team of high-paid government employees working for Ontario citizens and Indigenous nations. With this very strong story, more and more truth is unfolded and brought to the citizens. We, Indigenous peoples, have watched the dominant society get deeper and deeper into the environmental crisis. Maybe the RCMP will get involved in this kind of money-changing hands for the sale of our Greenbelt and other deals and permits. The real big story should include the selling of Northern Ontario, The Ring of Fire. Mining contracts and permits are being made by the same troubleshooters. The provincial government is selling rivers, lakes, and the homes of many Indigenous peoples who still hunt, fish, and gather off Mother Earth. There is some coverage by CBC available on the internet, which shows people in their canoes traveling like it is a Disney movie, clean and pure. With everything that has appeared in the media concerning the Amazon rainforest and glaciers melting, not to mention Earth Summits, protecting the boreal forest should be the Government of Ontario’s obvious priority. Still, it’s the opposite for the provincial government. They want to sell the Greenbelt and the boreal forest as fast as they can. Indigenous peoples want to help, but we need help to stop this mega project, Ring of Fire, and all the extension roads built to extract minerals from mining. Which should be left in the ground before everywhere is contaminated by chemicals and waste. Does the provincial government think they know what they are doing by selling Mother Earth for profit and selling Indigenous territories? Our people are shaking their heads at the government, which has not stopped for one day to do anything that pertains to justice or creativity.