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May: Getting harder to ‘drain the swamp’ in Ontario

By Steve May,
Special to Sudbury Star,
August 5 2017

“Drain the swamp!” might have been the cry that helped put Donald Trump in the White House, but as far as preserving Ontario’s natural heritage goes, it’s really bad advice. Swamps and other wetlands — bogs, fens and marshes — have been disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate. Once viewed as unproductive land that stood in the way of expanding agricultural operations and subdivisions, the movement to conserve wetlands for their ecological functions has been growing.

What Donald Trump might not understand is the very important role that wetlands play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Northern Ontario’s vast Hudson Bay Lowlands contain some of the most extensive peatlands in the world. These “unproductive” bogs are actually providing a significant ecological service to the planet by sequestering carbon — as much as one third of Ontario’s annual carbon emissions, according to provincial figures. Smaller wetlands in developed urban areas can also help regulate temperatures by minimizing heat island effects. Wetlands also stabilize soils and decrease the impacts of flooding events.

Last month, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry released its much-anticipated “Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario”. An earlier draft of this strategy had drawn some critical comments from environmental organizations like Ontario Nature, and Conservation Ontario — the umbrella organization for our province’s 36 conservation authorities. The good news for wetlands is that Minister Kathryn McGarry seems to have listened to the advice of the conservation experts — for the most part.

The new strategy includes important targets for halting the net loss of wetlands by 2025, and achieving a net gain in wetland area and function by 2030. Using 2010 as a baseline, these targets will provide a yardstick for the province to measure the success of the strategy’s implementation.

The strategy, however, stops well short of extending protection to all wetlands. Only the largest, most diverse wetlands — those determined by evaluation to be provincially significant — will remain protected. Regional and local wetlands will continue to be exposed to displacement by development. The difference now will be that where wetlands fall victim to urban and economic development, they may need to be replaced elsewhere.

This practice is known as “offsetting” and it’s extremely controversial. On the one hand, offsetting can assist in achieving a net gain of wetlands by allowing less-productive natural wetlands to be destroyed based on a commitment to build or enhance a wetlands elsewhere. On the other hand, the ecological services provided by smaller wetlands are not well understood and permitting their continued destruction may lead to negative local outcomes.

Offsetting could lead to the creation of ‘Big Box’ wetlands at the expense of local diversity. And that seems to be at odds with the results of a recent University of Guelph study that determined smaller wetlands are more effective than larger ones at filtering pollutants before they enter rivers, streams and lakes.

Ontario has already ventured down the offsetting road for species-at-risk habitat. The results have been mixed. While offsetting is a practice intended to be used as a tool of last resort, that’s not what appears to be happening, with roads like Sudbury’s Maley Drive and other infrastructure projects being pushed through the habitats of threatened and endangered species without much in the way of assessing alternatives.

Ontarians should continue to demand the government to conserve all wetlands — not just the largest — for their natural heritage values, biological functions and the role they play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, even with offsetting, one thing is clear: it’s going to be harder to justify ‘draining the swamp’ in Ontario in the future, due in large part to the province’s collaborative wetlands strategy.

— Steve May is a member of the Green Party in Sudbury.


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