The second Sources of Knowledge Forum, held in Tobermory in 2010, explored Wildlife and Its Value to Community. One notable contribution that has relevance today was from the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) who presented their Conservation Plan for the Northern (Bruce) Saugeen Peninsula.
The NCC stated that the Peninsula is “World renowned for its diversity of orchids (42 species) and ferns (20 species), this region is one of the Great Lakes’ biodiversity “hotspots” … many unique habitats occur, including alvars, sand beaches, fens and meadow marshes. Along its eastern shore, the Peninsula supports a rare example of an ancient forest, with an Eastern White Cedar that is 1,320+ years old. It is the oldest living tree in Ontario and quite possibly Canada.
Another unique feature of the Saugeen Peninsula is that it represents the largest remaining forested area in southern Ontario. According to the Southern Ontario Land Resource Information System, in 2008 the area contained 66,146.7 ha of forest cover, representing 69.15% of the total area. But today, southern Ontario has only about 25% forest cover, which is less than the minimum needed to support healthy wildlife and ecosystems. Southwestern Ontario has only 12.1% forest cover. See Environmental Commissioner’s Report 2018.
Just before the Ford government axed the position, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario issued the 2018 Environmental Protection Report. The report stated that before European settlement, the landscape of southern Ontario was almost continuously forested.
The Report sets out the forest cover thresholds and corresponding consequences for biodiversity and aquatic systems within a watershed. These are:
- 30% Minimum forest cover threshold is a high-risk approach that may only support less than one half of the potential species richness, and marginally healthy aquatic systems.
- 40% Minimum-risk approach that is likely to support more than one half of the potential species richness, and moderately healthy aquatic systems.
- 50% Low-risk approach that is likely to support most of the potential species and healthy aquatic systems
While we no longer bulldoze entire woodlands as a matter of course, the Report notes that forest loss in southern Ontario is death by a thousand cuts. We allow other land uses to fragment the forest and nibble away at the edges. Each incremental loss has big impacts on the services the forests provide to society and the wildlife they support. When a road cuts through a woodland it not only removes forest, it creates new forest edges, which can have negative impacts on interior forest-dwelling species.
For communities with little forest cover, every small patch of forest counts as a defence against erosion, storm water run-off, air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, noise and heat. A mature, diverse forest provides functions and services (seed sources, pollen, healthy soils for regeneration, greater biodiversity) that new plantations won’t be able to provide for decades.
One of the problems is that Ontario’s land use planning rules are weak and do not prohibit clearing forests and development tends to take precedence. The key document is the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) which sets out the general rules for land use planning in southern Ontario. Municipalities then apply these rules in their respective official plans, which must be consistent with the PPS. The PPS prohibits development or site alteration in “significant woodlands” (identified and designated by municipalities) unless it has been demonstrated that there will be no negative impacts on the natural features or their ecological functions. The PPS directs that nothing in its natural heritage policies is … intended to limit agricultural uses to continue. To protect woodland from development it must be identified and designated as significant. Small forest clearance may not be considered significant but cumulatively it probably will and in Bruce County, at least, the planners do not measure cumulative impacts.
If overall forest cover is low across the municipality, the ministry guidelines recommend that even small woodlands be considered significant, but if overall forest cover is higher, the size threshold for significance is also higher.
To increase forest cover to 40% as well as meet Canada’s carbon reduction targets, control flooding, protect shorelines and reduce erosion, in 2008, the Ontario government created the “50 million Trees Program.” As of this year, 27 million trees have been planted across Ontario. Last month the Ford government announced that it was immediately cancelling the program to save the $4.7 million in costs. After a major nursery operation pointed out that they alone would be obliged to destroy more than three million seedlings and young trees, the Minister backtracked and postponed cancellation for a year. At the same time the government cut in half the funding for conservation authorities for flood control.
Since the start of its involvement on the Saugeen Peninsula the NCC has protected 5,865 hectares (14,490 acres). This is land permanently removed from development. Added to the National Park and other protected areas this amounts to a significant increase in protected lands in the 20 years since the NCC first bought property on the Peninsula. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort because, as the NCC pointed out at the Forum 2010, the Peninsula …represents an ecosystem of global importance for biodiversity conservation … and it provides …one of the last opportunities to protect large-scale functioning ecosystems in Southern Ontario.
In case there is any doubt about the importance to humanity’s continued existence on this planet one should read the UN Report published in May on the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems. There is a summary here.
There is also a description of the protected areas on the Peninsula illustrated with excellent maps by the Wildlands League here.