Tuesday, August 8, 2017

It's Going to be More Difficult to 'Drain the Swamp' in Ontario

“Drain the swamp!” might have been the cry that helped put Donald Trump in the White House, but as far as preserving Ontario’s natural heritage goes, it’s really bad advice.  Swamps and other wetlands – bogs, fens and marshes – have been disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate.  Once viewed as unproductive land that stood in the way of expanding agricultural operations and subdivisions, the movement to conserve wetlands for their ecological functions has been growing.

What Donald Trump might not understand is the very important role that wetlands play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Northern Ontario’s vast Hudson Bay Lowlands contain some of the most extensive peatlands in the world.  These “unproductive” bogs are actually providing a significant ecological service to the planet by sequestering carbon – as much as one third of Ontario’s annual carbon emissions, according to provincial figures.  Smaller wetlands in developed urban areas can also help regulate temperatures by minimizing heat island effects.  Wetlands also stabilize soils and decrease the impacts of flooding events.

Last month, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry released its much-anticipated “Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario”.  An earlier draft of this strategy had drawn some critical comments from environmental organizations like Ontario Nature, and Conservation Ontario – the umbrella organization for our province’s 36 Conservation Authorities.  The good news for wetlands is that Minister Kathryn McGarry seems to have listened to the advice of the conservation experts – for the most part. (see: “Help protect wetlands,” Ontario nature, November 9, 2016, and “Conservation Ontario’s Comments on “A Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario 2016-2030” (EBR# 012-7675),” January 9, 2017).
The new strategy includes important targets for halting the net loss of wetlands by 2025, and achieving a net gain in wetland area and function by 2030. Using 2010 as a baseline, these targets will provide a yardstick for the Province to measure the success of the strategy’s implementation.

The strategy calls for additional funding for mapping wetlands - an important starting point for the discussions that need to take place between the various level of government and governmental organizations charged with looking out for the health of wetlands.  Indeed, the the web of bodies who oversee wetland conservation sometimes appears to be as complex as a wetland ecosystem.  The strategy acknowledges the roles of all partners, and states that it wants to do better - but it seems that some gaps still remain.

The gaps are there because oftentimes wetlands are located inconveniently on private lands.  Regulating land uses on private lands isn't as straightforward than for lands in the public domain.  And that's where a lot of Ontario's wetlands have been lost.  Many of the existing tools identified in the strategy are ones that aren't being used in many cases to protect wetlands - and the toolbox itself might not be large enough.  Cut and fill by-laws might prevent wetlands from being filled in by private landowners, and municipal tree cutting by-laws might protect trees from being harvested, but there is little protection for wetland 'understory' - all of the other plant species that make wetlands wet.  Even today, authorities appear to be perplexed about how to save a significant Great Lakes coastal wetland from a private landowner bent on destroying it (see: "Sault residents react to developer's logging activity," SooToday.com, July 27, 2017).

Still, there's a lot of good in the strategy - from raising awareness to promoting partnerships, to a commitment to protect and conserve all wetlands deemed provincially significant in mid- and Southern-Ontario.  The strategy also calls for a review of the Ontario Wetlands Evaluations Manuals, which might strengthen wetland evaluation (see: “What will the future hold for Ontario’s wetlands?” Ontario Nature, August 3, 2017).

The strategy, however, stops well short of extending protection to all wetlands.  Only the largest, most diverse wetlands – those determined by evaluation to be provincially significant – will remain protected.  Regional and local wetlands will continue to be exposed to displacement by development.  The difference now will be that where wetlands fall victim to urban and economic development, they may need to be replaced elsewhere.

This practice is known as “offsetting” and it’s extremely controversial. On the one hand, offsetting can assist in achieving a net gain of wetlands by allowing less-productive natural wetlands to be destroyed based on a commitment to build or enhance a wetlands elsewhere.  On the other hand, the ecological services provided by smaller wetlands are not well understood, and permitting their continued destruction may lead to negative local outcomes.

Offsetting could lead to the creation of ‘Big Box’ wetlands at the expense of local diversity. And that seems to be at odds with the results of a recent University of Guelph study that determined smaller wetlands are more effective than larger ones at filtering pollutants before they enter rivers, streams and lakes (see:“Destruction of small wetlands leads to more algal blooms, Ontario study finds,” Sudbury.Com, July 23, 2017).

Ontario has already ventured down the offsetting road for species at risk habitat.  The results have been mixed.  While offsetting is a practice intended to be used as a tool of last resort, that’s not what appears to be happening , with roads like Sudbury’s Maley Drive and other infrastructure projects being pushed through the habitats of threatened and endangered species without much in the way of assessing alternatives (see: "Ontario's Environmental Assessment Process is Failing Species At Risk in Sudbury," Sudbury Steve May, April 26, 2016).

Ontarians should continue to demand the government to conserve all wetlands – not just the largest - for their natural heritage values, biological functions and the role they play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, even with offsetting, one thing is clear: it’s going to be harder to justify ‘draining the swamp’ in Ontario in the future, due in large part to the Province’s collaborative wetlands strategy.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

An edited version of this post originally appeared in the Sudbury Star, as "May: Getting harder to 'drain the swamp' in Ontario,'" online, and in print as "May: It's getting harder to 'drain the swamp' in Ontario," August 5, 2017 - without hyperlinks.

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