Making the cut: Deforestation remains touchiest topic

Around the Nation

by Tom Van Dusen

It’s one of the thorniest issues in rural Eastern Ontario, clear-cutting, with two distinct camps and many other landowners and regulators straddling the line.

It’s almost politically incorrect to raise the issue… even risky because of its volatility. Mostly, area politicians would rather not talk about it, thank you very much!

The hot-button topic suddenly erupted last Thursday during an online meeting of the Raisin-South Nation Source Protection Committee when member Don Munro, representing the general public, drew attention to swaths of forest being cleared along Highway 138 north of Cornwall.

The SPC mandate revolves around safeguarding communal drinking water supplies. Munro asked if the clear-cutters in question would be required to implement water protection measures in the wake of a presentation by Alison McDonald, in charge of issuing approvals in the jurisdiction.

McDonald had underlined shortcomings of the Nutrient Management Act preventing the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food from imposing terms and conditions as may be required. She said enforcement will be applied if necessary under the Risk Management Plan, a stop-gap measure.

Munro’s intervention launched a chain reaction among several SPC members, starting with South Stormont Mayor Bryan McGillis, moving right along to North Glengarry Deputy Mayor Carma Williams, then to La Nation Mayor Francois St. Amour, all of whom spoke of difficulties being encountered in trying to curb clear-cutting.

Above, tree-cutting and land-clearing activity in South Dundas.

The discussion ended when farmer/member Walter Oeggerli, after drawing attention to the sanctity of property rights, urged chair Ray Beauregard, also a farmer, to get the meeting back on agenda.

Many area politicians have been trying to walk a tightrope in balancing the rights of farmers with environmental concerns of other residents. No municipality in the Raisin-South Nation region has implemented a clear-cutting management bylaw although several have been investigating the ramifications including North Glengarry and Alfred-Plantagenet.

North Glengarry has come closer than most with a draft bylaw on the books which doesn’t prohibit tree removal but regulates clear-cutting in parcels of 2.5 acres or larger. If approved, applications will be required with a fee of $50 per acre up to a maximum of $500; a cutting permit will be posted on subject lands. Municipal orders will be applied to stop cutting or rehabilitate a bush lot where the township believes a contravention has occurred.

In an interview, Williams said her municipality is on “draft four or five” of the bylaw to regulate what she called the touchiest issue she’s experienced in more than a decade on council. The latest draft will go back out for further COVID-19 limited consultation with, she hopes, final approval to come in late spring, early summer.

When council realized it couldn’t please both the agricultural community and conservationists in one bylaw, Williams said it settled on applying conditions to at least control random speculators who might prefer not to register, pay fees and acquire a permit.

The largest chunk of regional clear-cutting is related to expanding croplands and most farmers are for it, or at least they support the principle that a man — or woman — should be free to do what’s needed on their own land to grow business and revenues while the sun shines on grain prices.

On the other side are conservationists and non-farming residents who see clear-cutting as an unwanted blight on the landscape. Let’s face it: There’s nothing attractive about a broad gouge left behind after extensive tree removal!

It’s also a fact that trees add much more to the environment than aesthetic appeal. They convert CO2 into oxygen, slow erosion and stabilize stream banks, they provide wildlife habitat, food for animals and humans in some cases, and beneficial shade.

Forest cover across Eastern Ontario has been declining dramatically in recent years because of clear-cutting, falling below — in some cases way below — the minimum of 30 per cent recommended by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

In just one jurisdiction, the 4,440 square-km overseen by SNC, some 3.4 million trees have been planted over the past 30 years… but that doesn’t even compensate for the number being removed. Four years ago, an Agricultural Forest Cover Committee made up primarily of farmers completed a thoughtful, reasonable report on the issue including several recommendations yet to be implemented.

Environmentalists underline the loss and extol the virtues of trees; many good farmers are aware of them and try to clear additional production land sympathetically, leaving fence rows and stands here and there for wildlife. Industrial farmers and speculators are more likely to be graduates of the slash and burn school of expansion.

Many conservationists also understand the need of farmers to make a decent living from their operations. They’d love to find that elusive, workable compromise… some day.

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