The Media Co-op
August 6, 2017
Globe and Mail Comes to Defense of Wetland Destruction
Dr. John Bacher
On Thursday, July 20th, 2017 the Ontario government finally showed the courage to say no to developer lobbyists when it finally said no to five years of pressure to gut wetland protection policies that have been in place since 1991. It rejected proposals to permit “bio-diversity offsetting” that would permit the destruction of provincially significant wetlands which are an important refuge for endangered wildlife.
Five days after the province firmly defended wetlands on Tuesday, July 25 after failing to publicize the wetland policy review the Globe and Mail leaped to the defense of developers who had advocated offsetting. It published an article by Jill Mahoney, “Fight for Wetland Stalls large Niagara Falls Development.” The particular development had offered itself as a pilot project for bio-diversity offsetting.
Mahoney‘s account was most bizarre that while ignoring the ultimately failed attempts by developers to change wetland rules through offsetting, it was full of angry quotations by the Mayor of Niagara Falls, James Diodati.. He denounced how, “The rules are being changed as the game is being played out.” This was a reference to a decision, following existing rules by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, (MNRF), to increase in October 2016, the area of wetland protected from development.
Mahoney focused on the opposition to the project came from the foreign owned nature of the current version of the threat to the Thundering Waters Forest. Her article only had one quote from an ecologically minded opponent of the development, retired Canadian forces captain, Edward Smith.
Based on a three hour interview Smith’s quote was narrowly limited to his concerns about foreign ownership. This ignored how he is being subject of a law suit based on his concerns for firings at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, (NPCA) these were expressed in a document which it attributed to him titled, “A Call for Responsibility.” The firings, although motivated by efforts of NPCA staff to protect the Thundering Waters Forest, took place before the property was transferred to its current owners.
Nine years ago when I and Jean Grandoni opposed the destruction of the Thundering Waters Forest at Niagara Falls City Council we were faced with a strange argument by the developer’s solicitor. This was that the scheme should be supported because of the prominence of the various local families behind it. Their support resulted in an appeal by me of the council’s decision to the Ontario Municipal Board. (OMB)
Following filing an appeal to the OMB I was contacted by the developer’s solicitor who asked me to engage in a mediation process. After several meetings, he agreed that the then Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) would be given access to the site, if requested to do a wetland evaluation. On this basis I withdrew my appeal and minutes of settlement were signed.
Unknown to the solicitor, when we signed the Minutes of Settlement a Pelham area environmentalist, John Lynn, had contacted brave staff persons at the NPCA, urging them to help me with my OMB appeal. Lynn is the only surviving individual who was part of the core group of eco-justice activists who in 1959, led by future Ontario legislator Mel Swart, persuaded the provincial government to create the NPCA.
NPCA staff was overjoyed when following signing of the Minutes of Settlement; MNR invited them to accompany them on the evaluation. They took part in the discovery of two previously unidentified species that were not recorded when the owners denied MNR access to the site. These were the Black Gum, an endangered tree, and the regionally significant, Blue Spotted Salamander. The findings resulted in the protection as significant wetlands, of 281 acres of the 484 acre site.
The process of the wetland re-evaluation was quite laborious stretching from 2008 to 2010. The slow process was required by the legal need for the ecological advisers of the owners, Lisa Campbell and Richard Brady, to be present on the site visits. I learned about the victory through reading a Niagara Falls Planning Department report filed at a City Council meeting.
The rescue of the Thundering Waters Forest ignited a storm of protest from developers. Sympathy for their complaints among the Niagara Regional Councilors that control the NPCA board, triggered NPCA staff firings legitimated through a planning exercise known as its Strategic Plan.
On Strategic Plan advisory boards key figures involved in attempts to develop Thundering Waters served, notably the developer’ solicitor, Lisa Campbell and Richard Brady. This resulted over six years in the firings of 21 NPCA staff documented into an appendix to “A Call for Responsibility.” These firings also eventually resulted in the unionization of the NPCA through the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, (OPSEU)
During the carnage of firings at the NPCA a new threat to wetland protection emerged because of lobbying efforts by the Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce. These sought to remove wetland protection within Fort Erie’s urban boundaries.
What triggered the Fort Erie Chamber’s indignation about wetland protection was a large old growth swamp forest, dominated by oaks and hickories, known as the Thompson Road woodlot. It shades the mouth of Frenchman’s Creek and the Niagara River. This makes it an important refuge for waterfowl such as herons.
Both the Thompson Road Woodlot and the similar wetland forest Thundering Waters were recommended for protection from development in a 1980 study of ecologically sensitive areas of Niagara known as the Brady report. This continues to be the only comprehensive study of land use planning based on the need to protect threatened eco-systems in Niagara that are hot spots of bio-diversity. An attempt by the NPCA to update the Brady report did not look at the entire City of St. Catharines. Recently Lisa Campbell has penned another report justifying deforestation in St. Catharines in an environmentally sensitive area identified in the Brady report as the Escarpment-De Cew Forest.
Unfortunately, the Brady report has not been well reported on in the Niagara area corporate controlled media. Few know of its pleas to protect Thundering Waters (originally called Ramsey Road Woodlot), the Thompson Road Woodlot, the Brock Decew Forest and the Irish Grove Woodlot. (A Grimsby Forest threatened by a road). This widespread ecological literacy provided a favorable opportunity during for the Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce to attack provincial wetland policy in an all candidates meeting held during a provincial by-election. This sparked a review of provincial paper which featured a discussion re paper of biodiversity offsetting. It was during this period of policy review that the Thundering Waters forest was sold to foreign investors.
After the sale of the Thundering Waters Forest, the new owners came forward with a development proposal that was originally based on bio-diversity offsetting. This was the first time since 2010 that a specific development proposal had been made. The original focus of development, an old growth forest immediately south of Oldfield Road, had now become a protected wetland. After two demonstrations at the Niagara Region and Niagara Falls City council, development on the basis of offsetting was dropped.
In June of 2016 an attempt was made to justify development of the 203 acres of the Thundering Waters Forest which were not provincially significant wetlands. This was attempted through a draft Environmental Impact Study (EIS). It was prepared by Dr. Stephen Hill, of the consulting firm, Dougan Associates. It helped to set in motion a native led protest, organized by an Oneida resident of Niagara Falls, Karl Dockstader.
Prior to the release of Hill’s report a deluge of requests were made by concerned Niagara Falls residents to the Niagara Falls Planning Department that whatever its findings, the EIS, commissioned and paid for by a developer, be subjected to an independent peer review. What makes this particular aspect of the struggle to save Thundering Waters so revealing was that it was led by Linda Babb, whom the Globe and Mail interviewed at length, but was never quoted from. As a result of this input, as provided for in the Niagara Region’s and City of Niagara Falls official plans, an independent peer review of Hill’s report was made.
The peer review was conducted by North-South Environment by an Ecologist, Leah Lefler. The most important part of her critique was an observation on page 3 that at this stage of the development process, according to the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System, (OMERS) that additional lands should be examined for wetland evaluation.
Lefler stressed that OMERS required that the unprotected wetlands at Thundering Waters should “be evaluated” to see if they should be protected “as part of “the Niagara Falls Slough Forest Wetland Complex Provincially Significant Wetland.” She also stressed that existing provincial and municipal policy required that all wetlands on site “greater than 2.0 hectares” should be designated as an Environmental Protection Area” (EPA) in the Niagara Falls Official Plan and protected from development. She also demanded that acoustic surveys of the breeding habitats of endangered bat species be conducted.
Although the City of Niagara Falls kept Lefler’s report secret (it was revealed only after an access to information act request by Ed Smith), its key recommendation was acted upon. As the Globe and Mail reported a wetland evaluation visit was made in late September 2016. As a result of the site the area of protected wetland was increased to 335 acres. The developable acreage has now shrunk to 149 acres, much of which is further restricted by buffering constraints.
The Globe and Mail failed to comment on the ecological significance of the additional acreage protected through the application of the OMERS methodology and the comments of the peer reviewer. Some details of the significance of these lands are clear from Hill’s own draft EIS.
Hill’s June 2016 draft EIS revealed three areas of what were then unprotected wetlands with old growth forest characteristics. These areas having trees with cavities and grooved bark are important for roosting habitat for the endangered Little Brown, Northern Myosis and Tri-Colored bats. Under Hill’s EIS, which was discredited through Lefler’s peer review, these areas were targeted for what Hill termed a “Tree Saving Plan.” This called for saving individual old growth trees while permitting development around them.
One of the old growth areas north of the rail line which runs through the middle of the Thundering Waters Forest was identified by Hill as a Fresh-Moist Oak-Maple Hickory Deciduous Forest. Hill admitted it is “notable for the size distribution of mature trees”. His EIS found that this area also provides breeding habitat for two Species at Risk birds. These are the Eastern Wood Pewee and the Wood Thrush. Both species are experiencing serious declines because of deforestation.
Another area of old growth forest rescued by the increased area of protected wetlands is a block of Oak Mineral Deciduous Swamp. This Hill admitted was “an exceptional example of Carolinian slough forest, containing high diversity of native species and a variety of vegetated habitats.” Here are found rare Buttonbush communities. This forest contains numerous vernal pools. They provide breeding habitat for the Blue Spotted Salamander and various frog species. It is also habitat for a rare plant, Shreber’s Aster.
A block of Old Growth Oak Mineral Deciduous Swamp which was upgraded to protected status is south of the rail line near the earlier protected wetland that is home to a spectacular White Oak giant known as the Thunder Oak. It contains rare Rufous Bulrush and Buttonbush communities. This newly protected forest also has vernal pools important for breeding amphibians and nesting areas for Wood Thrush. A less ancient block of mature forest south of this area was protected. It has Wood Thrush . breeding habitat and vernal pools.
Through the wetland review protection was also extended to a large block of mature forest adjacent to Dorchester Road and the Chippewa Parkway along the Welland River. This has vernal pools that provide amphibian habitat. The swamp also provides nesting for the Eastern Wood Pewee.
The wetland review also protected a number of pockets of Willow Mineral Deciduous Swamp. Currently dominated by Black Walnut and Eastern Cottonwood, these pioneering woodlands are succeeding into a Pin Oak forest. They also have important amphibian breeding habitat.
Ecological studies reveal that there are severe constraints to even the 149 acres of the site that are not protected wetlands. Hill’s own draft EIS reveals that most of this area provides breeding habitat for Wood Thrush and the Eastern Wood Peewee. They also provide important foraging habitat for another Species at Risk, the Barn Swallow.
Repeating the mantras about job loss, the Globe and Mail did nothing to deal with the reasons for the opposition, based on concerns to the threat of habitat loss of endangered species. It is a text book example of the mentalities that are creating an extinction crisis.