Petty Politics in Niagara Drives Review of Provincial Wetland Policy

An original article by Dr. John Bacher, first published at DemocracyWatchSimcoe.ca or pdf.

Tragically petty politics in the Niagara Region are driving a province wide review of wetland policy. While other parts of Ontario political debate may be around the big budget items of health care and education, in Niagara what drives heated exchanges are attempts to undermine the basic framework of the provincial wetland policy.

Shaped by an surge in popular environmental awareness in the late 1980s which shook much of the world, wetland policy in Ontario has been basically the same since it was formulated in 1992. Although the policy was one of the major achievements of the NDP provincial government of this time, it has since basically kept intact by subsequent Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments.

Apart from the parts of the province blessed to be included in provincial plans that are tough enough to control land use designations (Lake Simcoe Protection Plan and the Greenbelt), Ontario land use planning regulation in terms of actually protecting natural habitats is horrifically weak. The bad joke of municipally controlled planning in what is truly to make a pun of Greenbelt language our “unprotected countryside” is exposed by the minor consequence of what are legally defined as provincially significant forests.

20151127 Black gum
An ancient Black Gum about 500 years old near QEW highway in wetland Niagara politicians keen on downgrading.

In order to get this even albeit feeble level of protection provincially significant forests are frequently the only natural areas bigger than twenty acres in a few square miles of concessions. This was the situation in David Dunlap Forest I vainly tried to defend through the land use planning process ungoverned by provincial plans in Richmond Hill. The end result was that about half of an over 100 acre forest-the only such large natural habitat in all of the older built up area of the urban core for about five square miles- was literally ground into saw dust.

While provincially recognized forests are indeed “significant”, their protection in the land use planning process is a joke. They are supposed to be protected as long as development does not impede the forests’ “ecological function.”

Policies which have forests and other ecosystems such as alvars, prairies and savannahs, be subject to site alteration as long as their “ecological function” is not impaired fit only for ridicule. If a forest is big enough to be considered provincially significant, reducing its size, chopping it up for an estate, or eliminating it altogether, reduces its function. Smaller forests for instance, cannot support as many species of breeding birds. Many birds such as the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, require large forest blocks, especially because of the problem of the nest raiding of the Cowbird. (this species prefers more open habitats)

OMB hearings and municipal councils where experts paid by developers and municipalities attempt to justify claims that forests in a heavily deforested landscape can be cut down without harming their “ecological function” should be slightly edited and used for satires such as the Royal Canadian Air Farce. What is heard is nonsense that suggests a box store parking lot is as suitable for deer habitat that a fifty acre block of forest. Or that the Barred Owl can have excellent wintering habitat on the roof of a fast food restaurant.

What makes wet forests better protected than dry ones is the Wetland Policy of the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) under the Planning Act. Since 1992 the PPS has ensured that if an area scores enough points to be provincially significant (points gained generally by having habitat for rare species) the swamp (wet) forest is considered provincially significant. This means that site alteration such as urban development and severances for estate lots in rural areas are prohibited.

While in most of Ontario there is enough sanity so that even the most obtuse politicians believe that building in swamps is not a good this is not the case in Niagara. Apparently the biblical injunctions about the wise not building in the quick sand do not find favour here.

The all party Niagara political consensus favouring wetland destruction emerged in February 4. 2014 all candidates meeting reported in considerable detail in an on line publication, Niagara Bullet News. Here candidates representing the four major political parties demanded reductions in wetland protection. They blasted the policy with a cry of lamentation over the “millions of dollars lost by developers” from current policies.

To counter attacks by Green, Liberal and NDP candidates about the impact of wetland protection policies, the Liberal Party candidate, Niagara Falls councillor, Joyce Morocco, revealed an insider’s perspective to reviews of wetland policy. She told the all candidates meeting that “she learned about Fort Erie’s struggles with this issue and in a meeting held about three weeks ago, she and Premier Wynne discussed it at-length with Mayor Doug Martin, EDTC general manager Jim Thibert and business leaders from the constituency.”

At the all candidates debate Morocco provided further details of her conclave with business and municipal officials to gut provincial wetland policy. Following the session “Wynne’s office immediately contacted the Ministry of Natural Resources the provincial body that oversees and enforces wetland regulations. During the debate Morocco further revealed that “We’re already putting something forward”, to weaken wetland policy.

Although Morocco lost the Fort Erie-Niagara Falls riding to an NDP candidate her promises for a review of wetland policy were implemented six months later. Then on September 24, 2014, Wynne authorized a review of wetland policy. The subsequent paper generated for the review suggested that wetlands could be subjected to what it termed “bio-diversity offsetting.”

The offsetting policy currently being reviewed following a round of public meetings around the province, has won the praise of a Conservative legislator from Niagara, Tim Hudack. He praised bio-diversity offsetting for using “the best modern science” and serving to allow “local flexibility.” Hudack believes that by opening up now protected provincially significant wetlands to development through offsetting Niagara will generate “investment and jobs.”

The outrageousness of the all party attacks on wetland policy can be seen in the context of the actual land supply in Niagara. In Niagara the Niagara Regional Official Plan – after several years of protracted negotiations with the province – does not allow any urban boundary expansions because with all the PSWs protected, there is still a 41 year supply of residential land. (the supply is even greater for commercial-industrial land) This supply is so great that at the province’s request, the Niagara Region imposed through its official plan a phasing policy to restrict growth within its urban boundaries.

In addition to the fact that there is no need according to provincial planning policies to develop protected PSWs in Niagara, what makes the cry of the politicians for them being paved over is their ecologically significant nature. There are two major protected wetland complexes in Fort Erie. One is the Kraft Drain, named after the family that launched the major food empire. The other is the Frenchman’s Creek wetland complex. It is under much more development pressure than the Kraft Drain because of its close proximity to a major expressway, the Queen Elizabeth Highway. (QEW)

The core of the Frenchman’s Creek PSW is a large forested tract of around 220 acres identified in a 1989 Niagara Regional environmental sensitive areas study known as the Brady Report as the Thompson Woodlot. It shelters and shades Frenchman’s Creek near its outlet at the Niagara River, breeding habitat for an important game fish, Muskellunge. It also provides habitat for two threatened fish species, the Grass Pickerel and the Greater Redhorse. It has some of the best fish habitat in Niagara for common game species such as Northern Pike and various bas and perch species. The wealth of fish makes Frenchman’s Creek one of the best places in Niagara to view a wide variety of heron species.
The Thompson Woodlot is one of Fort Erie’s largest and oldest remaining forest tracts. It was identified in the Brady report as “a recharge area for Frenchman’s Creek.” containing “swamps and sloughs”. The term “slough” is now more precisely used as vernal pool, which provides vital habitat for obligate species such as the Blue-spotted Salamander and the Wood Frog. The dominant canopy tree species in the forest include Shagbark Hickory, Walnut, Sugar Maple, Red, Pin and Swamp White, and White Oak. Among the tree species for which the forest provides habitat is the obligate interior species, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. It has some of the best forest interior cover in Niagara for threatened bird species, being one of the few locations where there is good forest cover more than 200 metres away from the wood’s edge.

The scheming of Niagara politicians to wreck wetlands does not stop on the edge of the urban boundary. As a Niagara Falls councillor, Morocco supported in 2013 an attempt by the City of Niagara Falls to achieve what would in effect have been an urban boundary expansion in a large area rich in wetlands. This was an attempt to have a special policy designation for future urban growth along both sides of the QEW. This scheme, subsequently withdrawn because of opposition from Port Colborne and a local environmental group, the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society, (PALS), would have encouraged urbanization in the heart of the most intact surviving wetlands in the Carolinian forest zone. One of the impact areas, identified in the Brady report as the Waverly Woodlot, has towering Black Gum trees, now recognized as the oldest deciduous woods in Canada.

The respected author Elizabeth Kolbert has warned of the pending “Sixth Extinction” from human stupidity and greed. Nowhere are her warnings so appropriate than the attitudes of Niagara’s politicians towards wetlands, which threaten rare species for the quest of shopping malls along an expressway corridor.

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