Commissioner Saxe also highlights pressures of projected 50 percent population growth in southern Ontario
FINCH — Ontario Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe spent part of May 9 being briefed by South Nation Conservation (SNC) specialists on several pressing issues — including declining forest cover, a matter of “great concern” to the province’s environmental watchdog.
Backdrop to Saxe’s meeting was the impending presentation of local recommendations to the SNC board on measures to slow the chopping of forests in the watershed. However, the primary objective of her Finch visit was to learn more about SNC’s phosphorus management program, during a discussion that also ranged to controlled tile drainage and projects to address climate change.
After hearing about widespread clear-cutting in the 4,384 square-km SNC jurisdiction, Saxe reinforced that her office supports a 30 per cent forest cover, the minimum seen as necessary to help prevent erosion, provide wildlife habitat and ensure healthy aquatic systems. The average forest cover across SNC territory was 28 per cent in 2014, with some municipalities much lower than that.
“Loss of forest cover is definitely a great concern to us,” the commissioner remarked, saying it reduces the ability to preserve native species and cope with “climate change.”
Saxe was an environmental lawyer before being named to her current post a little over a year ago.
Asked by Nation Valley News if she supported the idea of municipal tree-cutting bylaws, Saxe conceded such local legislation can “certainly be useful” but hinges on enforcement and popular support. “Having a law that isn’t enforced is almost worse than having no law,” she observed, noting her legal experience with tree-cutting bylaws.
She also highlighted how Toronto city council briefly imposed a tree-cutting bylaw but dumped it because of the ensuing uproar. “We have found [it] in Ontario very, very, very difficult to protect natural lands for long against development pressure, which is why we’ve lost so much forest cover, particularly in southern Ontario.”
Added Saxe, “And I’m very concerned because we’re now planning to increase the population of southern Ontario another 50 percent in the next, less than quarter century. And all of those people are going to go somewhere, and if we continue to allow development to occur in the way that we have, we’re going to have an unliveable situation.”
“If you increase the population, build on floodplains, cut down the forests, try to make water run off fast instead of soaking into the ground, we know you will get more flooding, and that flooding will become worse as if we increase the intensification … there’s nothing unexpected about it.”
Currently preparing a provincial report that will contain a chapter on phosphorus trading, the commissioner specifically sought out SNC as a jurisdiction implementing the contaminant reduction technique for over 20 years.
Saxe told SNC chairman François St. Amour, General Manager Angela Coleman, retiring manager Dennis O’Grady and other senior staff, the topics discussed at SNC fit into her five-year mandate of improving the Environmental Bill of Rights and accelerating better environmental, energy and climate outcomes.
SNC Stewardship Team Lead Ronda Boutz combined with O’Grady to describe how SNC was one of the first jurisdictions in North America to delve into the complex approach of allowing four-to-one offsetting in applying purchased credits to reduce the watershed’s overall phosphorous load. The SNC program is the first of its kind in Ontario.
Saxe wondered if there was follow up to make sure those who signed on carried through on their commitments. O’Grady explained there is a large trust component; phosphorus trading participants follow through because it’s good for the environment and good for business.
Turning to forest cover, Communications Lead John Mesman said planting programs are only able to return 120,000 trees a year to the landscape, for a total of about three million since 2009, compared to one million trees lost annually.
Mesman explained that a new committee comprising 17 regional agricultural producers has been formed to come up with recommendations on how to deal with clearcutting, with education on the value of forests being a chief priority. Dr. Saxe suggested landowners should already understand the implications of clearcutting.
Boutz also underlined the Capital Region Hydrology Working Group combining conservation authorities overlapping within the City of Ottawa which is reviewing vulnerability of low lying sectors and municipal infrastructure such as culverts in handling heightened floodwaters as manifested this spring. New floodplain mapping projects being undertaken by SNC will be able to provide municipalities and emergency responders with more information than ever before.
Saxe also toured a field site near St-Albert featuring a controlled tile-drainage system.
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario keeps tabs on the government’s environmental performance, acting as watchdog over Ontarians’ environmental rights. The position was created in 1994.
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