By Darren Lum
Protesters were out this past week on Gelert Road, trying to raise the public’s awareness about the potential death of turtles and destruction of a portion of a wetland as response to a Haliburton resident’s actions on his property located across from J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary School.
The protest started shortly after the fill was added on Friday and included members of the public and Turtle Guardians, who advocates for turtles and their habitats, which includes in the field efforts from monitoring turtle movements and helping them across the road during spring and educating the public with outreach efforts.
Those people that came out to Gelert Road were there to not only defend the wetland, which is in an Environmental Protected zone based upon the Dysart et al planning map, Haliburton Village area schedule “A” map one, as of July 2021, but to also raise awareness of the lack of municipal enforcement to protect this wetland with threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The wetland is a potential wintering spot for turtles, including Grace the 125-plus year snapping turtle, a species at risk according to the Guardians. This protest was also a call out about how all wetland locations are threatened throughout Haliburton County because of the lack of site-alteration bylaws.
Turtle Guardians chief operating officer and founder Leora Berman was angered when she saw the work to fill in what she said was the main water basin in the wetland by Gelert Road on Friday, Jan. 14.
She said the municipality of Dysart et al should be taking responsibility for what happened and similar incidents.
“The recent Auditor General report showed the Ford government has not protected our endangered wildlife, yet the Minister [of Environment] has contacted us and is investigating the situation. Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are investigating too. It isn’t because of Grace and it isn’t because this site regulates flooding of Gelert Road either. It is only because of fish and threatened species at the site. So, where is Dysart et al? They say it’s not their jurisdiction but they are wrong. Their job was to regulate,” she wrote in a prepared statement.
The Turtle Guardians hoped to have the fill removed to allow turtles to be safely removed. The DFO’s involvement was because the wetland is part of fish habitat that’s protected under the Fisheries Act.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts said she sympathizes with the protesters and appreciates their passion, but without a site-alteration bylaw the township has its hands tied.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t care. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t taken action as quickly as we have been able to by adding it to an agenda [for Tuesday’s, Jan. 25 regular meeting], having the conversation being what can we do about it?” she said. “It’s great that it stopped for now so that we can at least have a pause and we can, you know, maybe go forward.”
Berman said just because the municipality doesn’t have a site-alteration bylaw isn’t an excuse for what has transpired, which has ramifications that go beyond just saving turtles.
“So, it is the gaping holes in the tools and processes within our own municipality that led to this situation in the first place … and could lead to many more. If this isn’t fixed, our hunting heritage, fishing, and wildlife are at stake. The proper tools are non-existent here, and that takes power away from the people and puts it in the hands of developers alone,” she wrote. “This zoning at this site was placed only on a tiny fraction of the 14 -acre property. So in this case, and in any case, it doesn’t mean that its an either/or situation and it rarely means that it is all or nothing. The lack of good tools, simply removes opportunities for the people of this community to find balanced solutions.”
Roberts said establishing a site-alteration bylaw is complicated, as has been proven at the county level with the most recent meeting held virtually on Monday, Jan. 17. It’s something the county has been at it since 2017.
She said the shoreline allowance bylaw is not likely going to be passed by the county any time soon.
“We’re so, so far divided in that. Near the end of that conversation, my closing remarks were I don’t think we should go back to the drawing board. I honestly don’t think that we’re going to get a bylaw … it’s not just that people don’t agree on. Even if we have something that gets presented to county council and it’s voted on and passed, we know that we’re going to have that being contested. It’s the most divisive topic I’ve ever seen,” she said.
She said she will contact Haliburton County’s director of public works and planning to ask about the potential problem if someone raises an area to a degree where it may negatively affect water drainage.
Roberts said protesters and concerned residents may not like the position Dysart is taking, but said council will be discussing the matter at the regular council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 25.
“But we got it on our agenda as quickly as we can to see what we can do and that’s pretty good in my mind and that the ministry did respond as quickly as they have. That’s great, too. So, I would like to hear on the flip side from county and I’ll be contacting them before Tuesday’s meeting,” she said. “So, I’ll hopefully have an answer.”
Roberts acknowledged the wetland that sparked the protest has had flooding in that area of the road close to the wetland before.
Although the resident that filled in the wetland didn’t require a permit, Roberts said, he did conduct work at a time of year when it is difficult to see where you are in relation to the different types of land.
“But it is also very different to be doing something like that in the middle of winter where you can’t actually see or delineate where … [there is a pond] … you have to look at maps,” she said.
She added there is a responsibility property owners must assume to not alter property to negatively impact a neighbouring property even in areas without a wetland. In this case, it’s the county road and “they’ll have to weigh in on this one as well.”
Contacted for comment, a woman who did not identify herself at the property where the fill was added, said, “no comment.”
Minister of the Environment David Piccini’s press secretary Andrew Kennedy confirmed they had contacted the Turtle Guardians, a second complainant and the Haliburton property owner with the wetland at issue.
“We are happy to share that the property owner has agreed to stop the filling activities while we investigate further,” he wrote in an email.
Since the initial response to the Echo, when asked to clarify if any charges and what the investigation would entail, the office responded: “Our objective is ensure that no species have been harmed from this incident, which is why investigators from the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Park’s (MECP) Species at Risk Branch and Environmental Investigations and Enforcement Branch are working as quickly as possible to complete an investigation into how and why this event occurred, along with possible solutions for remediation. Of course, MECP hopes that the habitat will be restored as soon as possible.”
This concern isn’t just relegated to local residents and organizations such as the Turtle Guardians. A petition was started online at Change.org called The Help Save Grace the Ancient Turtle and her friends, by ending the filling of wetlands!
As of Monday, Jan. 24, there has been 2,042 signatures in a little more than a week of starting. It is directed at the MECP, Haliburton County and Dysart et al.
Full time resident Sandre Daoust, who lives a short drive down the road on Grass Lake in Haliburton, said she was there last week to help raise awareness about the importance of all wetlands.
“We’re in a vast wetlands area, you know? All through Haliburton and the village and the filling in that has gone on, unmonitored really, is really creating bigger and bigger problems,” she said, referring to past flooding of the road. Daoust said there are municipalities outside of the Highlands that has site-alteration bylaws in place.
“So it’s not about what ‘s happened. I think it’s about what we have to stop now and what we need to do moving forward … if the wetlands are not left to do what they need to do, especially in our lake chains it’s going to be almost irreversible. It’s practically there now,” she said.
Daoust has lived full-time almost 20 years on Grass Lake, but has been a cottager for close to 40 years in Haliburton County. She has seen the destruction of various wetlands in the Highlands and is working to stop it. She isn’t alone as an active member of the Friends of Grass Lake group. For close to 10 years, the group existed unofficially and has been advocating for the preservation of wetlands and shoreline on Grass Lake. This past year the environmental conservation organization launched a website and a newsletter that it is sent to 85 residences, Daoust said.
She referenced how Head Lake is at the end of a chain of lakes, so what happens in one place isn’t isolated. Wetlands are not just habitats for wildlife, but also provide help with storm water management and act as a natural filter by trapping sediments and excess nutrients from surface water run-off before it reaches open water helping to maintain water quality.
It’s more than just for the one-eyed snapping turtle, Grace, she said. It’s the big picture of preserving the wetlands, but also the residual adverse issues that come from its destruction.
“I would imagine being a councillor could be quite uncomfortable these days because people are informed and they are asking questions and saying, you know, you can’t do this. You can’t support this, and you got to make it change. So that was just my opportunity to be in some way able to join others who are just trying to raise consciousness,” she said.
Although Daoust went out the one day, she had also contacted people she knew to join the protest, which had a rotation of groups throughout the past week.
“If not me, who? If not now, when?” Daoust said.
Once she learned of how this issue will be brought up in a staff report added to the Dysart et al regular meeting’s agenda, she encouraged people to write letters to express concern to council about the wetland destruction. She said there are close to 30 letters attached to the agenda.
The mayor defends the municipality
Roberts, who has been on council for close to 16 years, said a request to have a site-alteration bylaw wasn’t ever brought up by council, staff or the public.
“It just hasn’t come up in the conversation until it’s been [discussed] at the county. These last several years we delegated that authority for site-alteration on the shoreline to the county. That’s where they [came up with] should this be any wetland bodies of water? And it would if we had agreed to add those things then this land in question on County Road 1 would fall under that jurisdiction,” she said. “Then that person would have had to apply for a permit.”
“You can see if Dysart goes down this road how complicated it’s been at the county [level] and we’re still aren’t’ there to pass it,” she said.