Preserving the last bit of natural heritage of southern Ontario for future generations

November 30, 2022
Gord Miller

In the last few decades there have been various attempts to set aside, or protect, the last vestiges of the functioning ecological landscape in the face of relentless demand for land to facilitate the sprawl of residential and commercial development driven by ceaseless economic growth.

Some would point out that they have successfully protected some critical landscape features and others would counter that it is not enough and overall it has always been a net loss game. In any case, the debate will be over when Bill 23 and related planning policy become law and these protection mechanisms are degraded or lost.

We were frequently assured that Greenbelt Lands were inviolate, but now we see they are seen as “holding lands” to be purchased cheap and traded off to developers who cut the right deal. Conservation Authority lands held in public trust are to be inventoried and assessed for their development potential pending government ordered “disposal.” Provincially significant wetlands, once considered essential features to be preserved on a natural ecologically functioning landscape are to be “re-evaluated” and potentially downgraded to an unprotected status under a new classification system (which no longer will recognize the presence of endangered species present).

Such changes are the “end game” for natural heritage conservation in southern Ontario. There will be no way to protect any land for the onslaught. The mechanisms of placing private land of natural heritage importance under the protection of municipal planning restrictions have become complete failures.

The answer to this dilemma may lay in what we do further north. In the Crown Land of northern Ontario we have created protected lands called conservation reserves and set the concept of managing such lands in law as follows:

The objectives in establishing and managing conservation reserves:

1. To permanently protect representative ecosystems, biodiversity and provincially significant elements of Ontario’s natural and cultural heritage and to manage these areas to ensure that ecological integrity is maintained.

2. To provide opportunities for ecologically sustainable land uses, including traditional outdoor heritage activities and associated economic benefits.

3. To facilitate scientific research and to provide points of reference to support monitoring of ecological change on the broader landscape.

Don’t those objectives sound like what we are trying to achieve on the natural heritage lands of the south? Isn’t that how we want to see lands managed in critical areas within the Greenbelt, in conservation areas, in significant wetlands and woodlands?

We have this law in place. All that is needed is for the land to be acquired through purchase, donations or parkland allocations from developers. Then the province can designate the land as a conservation reserve. That would place these lands beyond the reach of developers, municipal councils, and public utilities who endlessly seek to exploit green areas on provincial landscapes.

Perhaps this is not a perfect solution to the challenge of protecting the ecological landscape for future generations. But it is a feasible mechanism that speaks to the heart of the problem.

Gord Miller, Chair of Earthroots and former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

Watch: Gord Miller discusses alternatives to razing protected environmental spaces, Global News

Header photo by Max Bottinger on Unsplash

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