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Efficiencies Debated

By Rachel Williams,
Novae Res Urbis: Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area,
Wednesday March 6 2019,
Vol. 22 No. 10

A move by the Ontario government to find efficiencies and “improve the effectiveness” of the Endangered Species Act is winning praise from the development industry but drawing criticism from environmental organizations.

The province has announced plans to review the environmental legislation to find modern and innovative approaches to protect species at risk while supporting economic development. A recent discussion paper issued by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks states the intent of the review is to deliver positive outcomes for species at risk while streamlining the process to identify those in danger. Other goals of the review are enhanced transparency and maintenance of government oversight.

“There have been a number of implementation challenges over the years  that have contributed significant uncertainty and to be blunt, frustration. The implementation of the act itself has been problematic and requires substantial resources and time investments through what’s really an administratively difficult process,” said Ontario Home Builders’ Association policy director Mike Collins-Williams.

In its submission to the provincial review, the OHBA is recommending implementation improvements that include stronger transition regulations in the event an endangered species is identified midapplication, a streamlined permit process and a stronger focus on the conservation of eco-systems as opposed to a sole focus on the protection of individually-listed species on an application by application basis.

Collins-Williams said the way a species becomes listed as endangered can jeopardize significant progress on development applications and planning approvals. The Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) considers what animals to list as endangered. Those species classified as endangered or threatened automatically receive legal  protection – a process developers say contributes to uncertainty and additional costs to ensure habitat protection.

The OHBA favours legislative amendments to lengthen the transition period between identification and automatic legal  protection of species, with longer public notice periods than currently allowed and ministerial discretion on the listing of protected species.

But Ontario Nature conservation and education director Anne Bell told NRU the listing process is one of the cornerstones of the ESA and should not be changed.

“The law sets out a transparent approach to listing based on a consideration of the ‘best available scientific information’ including information obtained from community knowledge and aboriginal traditional knowledge. Tampering with COSSARO decisions will politicize the process and delay or even prevent recovery efforts,” reads a joint submission by Ontario NatureDavid Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence to the province.

Collins-Williams also pointed to inconsistencies between district offices when developers try to secure a permit from the ministry. He said proponents can go in to two different district offices and receive contradictory information. In theory, a developer can request an “overall benefit permit” for an activity that otherwise would have an adverse effect on species at risk or its habitat, so long as conditions are attached to the permit. But he says sometimes offices provide conflicting information about mitigation, with delays of up to a year to receive information.

“There is a complicated legislative and regulatory framework around the whole planning approvals system. While it is only one permit for species at risk, it’s one permit within official plans, zoning, plans of subdivision, so there is a broader question of how this fits in with all of the other approval requirements for any given project to move forward and ensuring it fits in to that process,” he said.

The provincial discussion paper recommends that those seeking permits could pay into a conservation fund dedicated to species at risk conservation instead of activity-based requirements that may include tree replacement, reforestation or recreating wetlands. Collins-Williams said OHBA is in favour of this recommendation, adding the financial contributions could be dedicated to broader recovery initiatives related to for species at risk.

The province is also considering conservation land banking to address requirements for species at risk prior to commencement of a development. Conservation land banking enables environmental groups or
alternative land service providers to knit together large contiguous pieces of habitat, selling a few acres at a time to proponents looking to offset harmful impacts to species at risk.

“When you understand that habitat loss is the primary driver of extinction and species decline, then you need that on the- ground compensation for any harm that’s done,” said Bell. “The likely proponents of this fund are people who would rather not worry about the details of the on-the-ground compensation and just pay to get out of jail.”

Bell told NRU throwing money at the issue through land-banking or the use of a conservation fund rather than on-the-ground mitigation efforts will only make it easier to wipe out natural habitats and jeopardize the security of at-risk species.

“We are in the throes of the greatest extinction episode since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. And we’ve got our national and our international and our provincial commitments to address these things,” she said.

“We have to remember [that] sometimes we’re distanced from that fine fabric of the diversity of life because we live in cities and spend a lot of time indoors, but think about pollinators and how vital they are to food crops and how our food security depends on those smallest of beings doing their job. If they can no longer
do that, for whatever reason, then the fabric of life starts to unravel,”

The joint submission to the province by Ontario Nature, David Suzuki Foundation
and Environmental defence calls for the removal of 2013 exemptions for mining, hydro, infrastructure development and other proponents of harmful activities. It also calls on the province to protect the listing process and protections and provide expedient public reporting on the government  response strategies when a species is deemed to be at-risk.

Posted with permission of the publisher of NRU Publishing Inc. Original article first appeared in Novae Res Urbis – GTHA Edition, Vol. 22, No. 10, Wednesday, March 6, 2019.