When Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) was brought into force in 2007, the Ministry of Natural Resources granted a one-year exemption to the forestry industry on the premise that industry needed time to develop a compliance framework.
Since then, the forestry industry has claimed that the provincial Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA), under which it already operated, was enough to protect forest-dwelling species at risk, and that the ESA was therefore “red tape.” This, despite the fact that the most iconic forest-dwelling species, at-risk boreal woodland caribou, has been declining in the managed forest. Peer-reviewed science — including several recent studies in Ontario — continues to confirm that industrial disturbance is the primary cause of the decline.
We have engaged with the province many times as it moved to extend the forestry exemption, arguing that enforcement of the ESA was needed to reverse caribou decline. We have also clocked numerous, sometimes painful, hours at ESA-CFSA integration session meetings. Those ultimately dried up as the two pieces of legislation, which have different objectives, were found to be incompatible for recovering species at risk without making significant changes to the CFSA. The purpose behind the industry’s challenge to the ESA is clear, it doesn’t want to be bound by the higher recovery requirements of the Act.
The Government of Ontario just moved to permanently open the door to put business (both real and aspirational) first, through the recently passed Bill 229, despite significant public opposition.
The budget bill contains clauses that remove forestry from the obligation to abide by habitat protection measures under the ESA. It also rescinds the rights of the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks to issue habitat protection orders for forest operations.
“Ontarians were not given sufficient information and time to comment on government decisions on significant changes to forest management. In 2019, the Natural Resources and Environment ministries gave Ontarians notice of six proposals that would together make significant changes to how the ministries regulate commercial forestry on Crown land. We found the ministries’ approach to consultation on these proposals was not consistent with the purposes of the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) Act”.
The ministries did not tell the public what it was proposing as a “long-term approach” to forestry and species at risk—specifically, whether commercial forestry would be permanently exempted from some, or all, provisions of the ESA, 2007 and how species at risk would continue to be protected once an amendment to the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, 1994 was made;
Neither ministry told the public that the combined effect of the exemption for commercial forestry from both the Environmental Assessment Act and the ESA would be the loss of any statutory requirement to protect species at risk;
The relationships between the six proposals and their combined anticipated environmental impacts were not identified in any of the notices; and
The timing of the public comment periods for the six proposals likely reduced the public’s ability to understand the proposals and provide informed comment.
These combined changes are a significant loss to forest-dwelling species, and an outrageous affront to the democratic process. This loss of environmental safeguards comes on the heels of significant misinformation campaigns that have claimed economic devastation at the hands of caribou conservation, even while industry has been exempt from the Act.
As writer Terry Tempest Williams notes, “Our power lies in our love of our homelands.”
That power fuels us to continue to stand up for wildlife, sustainability and the need to acknowledge that industrial logging should not trump other users and non-timber values of the forest. We must continue to demand that the forestry sector share the forest. Instead of doubling industrial logging in the forest, the Government of Ontario should set aside much of its surplus wood supply to safeguard environmental values. We must renew our demand that the government do everything in their power to ensure caribou, which have also called these lands homelands for thousands of years, survive.
Rachel Plotkin has been a wildlife campaigner for over 20 years. She works for the David Suzuki Foundation.
Julee Boan was Ontario Nature’s Boreal Program Manager. Based out of Thunder Bay, she worked collaboratively with local conservation groups, First Nations, and industry to seek environmentally responsible approaches to economic development in northern Ontario. She has a Ph.D. in forest sciences with research focused on mitigating the impact of industrial logging on woodland caribou.