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Ontario needs to step up to protect Crown lands: biodiversity advocate

Ontario has quietly launched its latest biodiversity strategy, which will help guide its decisions on how to protect and conserve nature to 2030
A creek runs through the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, part of Ontario's Greenbelt , on Monday, May 15, 2023.

This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Ontario quietly launched its latest biodiversity strategy this week, which will help guide provincial decisions on how to protect and conserve nature out to 2030. 

It hasn't been updated since 2011, and there's been a few important developments since then. Consider the whole climate change thing. 

Another key development hanging over Ontario's efforts is the federal government's goal to protect at least 30 per cent of the country's land and water by 2030. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made that promise during the 2021 election campaign, and it was formalized in an international agreement at the COP 15 conference in Montreal. 

The latest strategy, which was released without fanfare this week, includes over a dozen new action items geared toward accomplishing that 2030 goal. 

Some of the new items include ensuring land use planning takes into account the important role it plays in protecting nature, further reducing the harmful effects of invasive species, identifying areas where biodiversity needs to be restored, and protecting 30 per cent of land and water ecosystems. 

Steve Hounsell, a former chair of the Ontario Biodiversity Council who still sits on the board, struggled to say which of the points is most important because biodiversity is all about entire ecosystems relying on interconnected, constituent parts.

Properly funding the strategy's implementation, however, is a big one. 

"We need to recognize that and we need to find ways of actually funding conservation programs. If we don't do that, we're going to languish. It'll be all talk and no action," he said. 

Late last year, the Ford government curtailed conservation authorities' powers in an effort to speed up home building. It also froze fees the agencies charge developers for environmental reviews, which funds a lot of the other work they do. 

Even before the Ford government came into power, however, Ontario wasn't exactly doing a great job of living up to past strategies' goals. 

The 2011 version of the strategy wanted to preserve at least 17 per cent of land and water ecosystems through some kind of protected areas. 

According to the 2020 progress report, just 10.7 per cent of those lands were protected. The latest strategy is aiming for 30 per cent. 

This is an area where the government could really make a difference, Hounsell said. 

"Crown lands are, by far, the vast majority of the province. That means the government has to step up," he said. 

The strategy, however, isn't something that the government itself is solely responsible for implementing. The Ontario Biodiversity Council, created in 2005, includes the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry along with dozens of other stakeholder groups. 

Together, all the groups have input on what goes into the document and what role each of them should play in ensuring it's working on the ground. 

The natural resources ministry does, however, play a big role by acting as a secretariat for the council. 

Despite a less-than-stellar environmental record under the Tories, Hounsell said the ministry did a great job helping the council get the strategy out. His big worry is whether cabinet will take the same approach. 

"The current government has not been extremely supportive of biodiversity. They've made a number of decisions and bills — which in terms of land use planning — is taking us in a very different direction, a direction which I believe is actually very harmful to biodiversity," he said. 

"It's going to be a challenge working with a government that doesn't seem to have the same kind of recognition of the value of biodiversity as I think we're trying to achieve," he said.

Despite his critiques, Hounsell said he's excited about the opportunity to work alongside the government and was cautious about levelling criticism. 

"I don't want to have a strategy launch and then attack the government. I'm hoping that they will actually see that there's a great deal of interest in responding to this, and I'm hoping they will." 

"That's my challenge right now, is not to turn them off but to find a way to encourage them to be a key partner," he added."I want to find out if they're on board."

The government first gave notice of its intent to renew the strategy earlier this year. 

Around that time, Hounsell said he was concerned about past moves the government made that threatened Ontario's biodiversity. 

"We need to do a better job of conserving nature and right now, nature's losing. And that's certainly true globally," in Ontario, and more so southern Ontario, he said in a March interview with The Trillium. "If we continue on a path where it's single-focused, just looking at economic gain at the expense of nature, we are setting ourselves up for some rather bleak future outcomes."

"To date, they've actually set us back. They set us back years in terms of some of the policies and programs that they have cut or changed, so I'm hoping there will be a bit of an epiphany," he said.

"It's in our own self-interest to do a much better job at conserving nature. And by the way, when you look at some of the recent things — in terms of Bill 23, as an example — it's hurting in terms of compromising all of the work we've done in the past to protect and restore wetlands," he said, referring to the government's latest housing bill.

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Aidan Chamandy

About the Author: Aidan Chamandy

Aidan Chamandy specializes in energy and housing. He can usually be found looking for government documents on obscure websites and filing freedom-of-information requests. He hosts and produces podcasts. Reach him anytime at [email protected].
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