By William Chapple
In December 2020, the Ontario government passed Bill 229 titled the Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act [Budget Measures]. Contained within this Bill is Schedule 6, which outlines significant amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act. These changes include empowering the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to overturn decisions made by conservation authorities to grant or deny development permits. The Ministry reserves the right to issue a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) for development, forcing conservation authorities to issue permits even if evidence shows the development could negatively affect human safety and protection of species at risk. The ruling removes conservation authorities as a public body, limiting them from appealing land use decisions. Developers may also build within key ecological features that would otherwise be protected, if they pay a fee.
To understand the implications of this ruling, it is important to comprehend the role and purpose of conservation authorities in Canada. In 1946, the Conservation Authorities Act was passed as concerns were rising about the state of renewable resources in the province. Poor resource management practices resulted in flooding and degradation. The provincial government adopted the integrated watershed management approach to provide watershed management and planning authority as we see presently in the 36 conservation authorities across Ontario.
According to an analysis of Bill 229 by the Canadian Environmental Law Association, “the majority of the Schedule 6 amendments are regressive in nature and are completely contradictory to fulfilling … the purpose of the Conservation Authorities Act.” As up to 95 per cent of Ontarians reside within watersheds, the responsible management of said watersheds should be scientifically driven to protect residents from the threats of flooding, erosion, and other safety concerns. The public did not get a chance to support or dispute Schedule 6 before it was passed in December because these changes were proposed as part of a Budget Measures Act, which do not require public consultation under the Environmental Bill of Rights, 2007.
In the case of Haliburton County, there is no conservation authority in charge of efforts for the region. Because of this the County handles land use decisions, including issuing development permits, as guided by scientific research completed by independent organizations. The lack of conservation authority does not mean, however, that Haliburton County will not be affected by Schedule 6 of Bill 229.
The Haliburton Highlands Land Trust (HHLT) is a privately owned, volunteer-based organization with similar goals of conservation and protection of natural systems as conservation authorities. Greg Wickware, Chair of the HHLT, describes the possible repercussions this legislation could have on the Haliburton area.
“Schedule 6 opens the door to replacing science-based watershed management with politically motivated decision-making and it puts the province’s remaining wetlands and forests, and the wildlife that depend on those habitats, at risk,” he explains.
In the area, some wetland systems have been granted protection as Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSW). Wickware highlights the danger Schedule 6 poses to these significant features.
“PSWs have the highest degree of protection, but with a [Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO)] that protection can be eliminated. Protecting wetlands reduces the threat of flooding and replenishes our supply of drinking water. Wetlands capture and hold deep pockets of water in our landscape … and replenish our groundwater tables.” He goes on to express extreme concern that these wetlands and their ecological function could be negatively impacted by MZOs and decision makers without the scientific and technical expertise needed to make rational land use decisions.
Unfortunately, privately owned land trusts such as the HHLT do not have the financial or technical capacity to complete the same work as conservation authorities, and do not act as land use planners or managers. Still, the County relies on scientific research studies completed by land trusts to guide responsible decision making. “Improved wetland mapping, including floodplain mapping is extremely important,” Wickware says as he describes the HHLT’s current projects.
“HHLT’s new wetland mapping layer is an important tool as it has been acknowledged by the County as the best accurate mapping for this and other planning decisions,” he said.
Because there are no conservation authorities in Haliburton, the HHLT supports the County in making informed decisions that will protect provincially and biologically significant features and human security. Land trusts also play an important role in helping the federal government in achieving the goal of conserving 30 per cent of Canada’s land and oceans by the year 2030. Bill 229, Schedule 6 seems to defy this ideal.
All five properties under the jurisdiction of the HHLT are protected as ecologically or biologically significant. With the threat of the MZO as described above, Wickware says, “Land Trusts will certainly have a role to play as zoning order permits are issued on lands that fall within their communities.”
Land trusts, especially those working without the support of a local Conservation Authority, must be very vigilant to the possible implications of Schedule 6. Wickware suggests this ruling will heighten the alert system of groups who are passionate about conservation. These people will not make it easy for a minister to override scientific recommendations on a consistent basis, Wickware says. The Conservation authorities will continue to provide recommendations based on scientific evidence, even though much of their power to act on these recommendations has been narrowed.
Wickware notes that the HHLT prides itself in providing volunteer opportunities as well as recreational facilities for locals. A healthy environment contributes to a healthy body and mental state especially during the pandemic, and the HHLT offers many naturalized areas for public use in their Dahl Forest and Barnum Creek Nature Reserve properties.
If you are a budding citizen scientist, volunteering with the HHLT is a great chance to make a difference for the environment in your community. Information about these opportunities is available on the HHLT website* and eNewsletter. In the face of environmental challenges like Bill 229, Schedule 6, it is up to us to come together and do what we can to protect the important ecosystems of Haliburton County and area.
For more information on HHLT, visit www.haliburtonlandtrust.ca.