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Natural heritage in Ontario: setting the record straight.

The Context

The paper on Planning and Managing Heritage in Ontario (Richards and Beechey paper this volume) lulls us into believing that basically all is well in Ontario. No room can be found here for basic truths such as that there no longer is a Parks Branch. In May 1993, the Ontario Provincial Parks Centennial Year - as a result of yet another Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) reorganization - the provincial parks branch ceased to exist. We now have what is de facto a regional park system. This is merely the latest in a series of moves apparently aimed at reducing the resources and influence of the protection arm of the Ministry. On paper the Ontario Provincial Parks System presently ranks with the national system in the quality of its major parks and in its ecological and policy approach to representation of the natural landscape of the province. As of November 1994, there is no central body committed to the consistent application of parks policy nor the supervision of park operations, and there is no one for the public to complain to.

This lack of leadership in Parks comes at a time when the Government is proposing to expand the protected areas land base. Last spring the Minister announced 18 new areas proposed for protection within the parks system and invited public comment. A new designation, conservation reserve, appeared in this announcement. This was introduced primarily to ensure that hunting could continue in the sites so designated. This designation has no official status under provincial parks; yet three of the recently announced old growth forest sites have also been designated conservation reserves. Clearly, if the conservation reserve designation exists as an alternative to parks, there will be very few new parks.

The proposal to review the boundaries of Wabakimi Provincial Park, north of Armstrong, has given the MNR the opportunity to set aside a substantial area of the remaining undisturbed boreal forest. Its present 150,000 hectare size does not adequately protect earth and life science features nor ensure the survival of the woodland caribou. Although such a major decision is a certainly a provincial concern, the MNR has left it to the regional office to cope with large forest companies, tourist operators, mining interests. aboriginal groups and local communities. They have done a competent job. However, all discussion has been confined to the northwest region, except for one workshop which FON lobbied for and worked with MNR to set up in Toronto.

Richards and Beechey, (this volume) also talk of "a more integrated ecosystem approach to forest management" and uses the Missinaibi and Quetico as examples where more enlightened timber management has prevailed. What the paper fails to mention is that the Federation of Ontario Naturalists spent more than three years fighting two timber management plans (TMP). Finally, after all this effort, we received minimal concessions on setbacks for the Missinaibi Waterway Park, and a weak paragraph in the draft plan on timber management.

In Quetico it has taken FON nearly two years, negotiating first with MNR and Avenor, and then directly with the company to get an amendment to the existing TMP. This modifies timber harvesting adjacent to the Park by setting up three zones covering the whole Quetico watershed, with the most restrictive zone being closest to the Park. During this work it was sometimes difficult to tell the MNR forester from the company foresters, so ingrained has been the foresters' training to maximize-wood supply regardless of other concerns. In the end the MNR forester proved helpful, but it took a lot of persuasion. The impetus for this change came from a non-government organization, and that it took a lot of that organization's staff time, incredible persistence and strategy to get even these responses.

The Situation Today

The whole natural heritage protection system is basically MNR's area of responsibility. Here are some of the things which put the protection of that system in jeopardy:

1. Hard times have meant that protection which can not be given an immediate cash value, gets ever decreasing resources.

* The system is low in trained park managers and ecologists.

* There are fewer and fewer trained biologists and ecologists in the field.

2. We all know that protected areas as "islands" are doomed. On Crown Land i.e. public land, where preventing the isolation of protected areas should be easy, land use planning is being done de facto through the timber management planning process. Non-timber values are still largely treated as a constraint on timber extraction.

3. In Southern Ontario success in implementing our one existing natural heritage protection policy statement - the wetlands policy statement- has been limited and local opposition has been bitter. Though the MNR has clear authority to identify and protect provincially significant wetlands, the Ministry has often been unable or unwilling to defend wetlands and wetland evaluations at hearings or to champion the cause of wetlands locally. In this atmosphere the natural heritage policy statement in recent proposed provincial planning reform is unlikely to be implemented or enforced.

4. MNR has lost the support of the public. This is largely owing to its failure to communicate its protection programs properly, its secretiveness and its failure in many areas to set a good example as stewards of public land.

What is to be Done?

1. MNR must work to regain public support. Such efforts must begin at the highest provincial level at Queen's Park with support for the really good land management which is going on in some areas.

MNR must work better with the public. If it really wants partnerships it better begin to treat the public and interest groups as real partners. Recently FON has had to take two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to appeal. One concerned the Megisan Lake Environmental Assessment and the other the Parks reorganization. The FOI inquiry found that the MNR had no justifiable reason for withholding the documents and ordered them released,

If it wishes to survive as a Ministry, MNR must be more open to change, to new ideas and new approaches both from its own staff and outside groups - even though this runs counter to the preservation instincts of any good bureaucrat. There is innovation in the field. Why is head office slow to recognize this where it occurs and make it a model for other areas?

2. MNR must sell protection. This means helping people understand the practical need for protection and careful land management.

Encouraging people to take a new attitude to land also requires some concrete incentives. The only existing incentive -- the Conservation Land Tax Rebate -- is extremely unpopular with landowners because it has never been properly sold. It also does not offer sufficient monetary incentive to offset development opportunities. Other incentives such as the Managed Forest Rebate have disappeared without public notice and not been replaced. This has led to a backlash by private owners of large tracts of forest lands against the present tax system, and encourages destructive cutting practices.

Conclusion

If the MNR is to continue into the next century it must cure itself of schizophrenia. Only its protection mandate sets it apart from other agencies, As other agencies and timber companies take on more of MNR's administrative functions, MNR will be left as the sole champion of natural areas, It is this expertise that will be invaluable in the future. We cannot afford to lose it or see it submerged by MNR's extraction mandate.
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Author:Marion Taylor
Publication:Environments
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Words:1240
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