By John Bacher
Posted January 29th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
After more than forty years of work in environmental and social justice causes in Niagara, Ontario, I am delighted to see the emergence of an informed, popular movement to protect and celebrate our threatened ecosystems.
This January 27th, more than 200 people mobilized to protest a proposed change to provincial wetland policy which could possibly undermine the protected status of provincially significant wetlands.
A follow up to this event will be held on Saturday, February 6th at 7pm at Mahtay Cafe, located at 241 St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines, by a newly formed group, Youth For Wetlands. It is intended as a celebration of our threatened wetlands and will involve art and music.
What makes the threat to our wetlands so pernicious is that the review which included a poorly attended meeting in a Niagara Falls arena last November, comes around the time of what should be a celebration of a quarter century of provincial policy to protect wetlands in Ontario.
The strength of the existing policy is that once established as provincially significant (generally on the basis of providing habitat for threatened species) these lands are no longer subject to the threat of site alteration. They are further protected by a thirty meter buffer.
At this point of time in Ontario, provincially significant wetlands have been extensively mapped and protected-accounting for about 11 per cent of Niagara’s landscape. Tragically however, the process involved in having them properly mapped has been painfully slow. This delay has led to significant damages to an important swamp forest in Niagara Falls identified in a study of ecologically significant areas of Niagara as the Ramsey Road Forest.
While most of the slough forest has been protected as a provincially significant wetland since 2008 – largely because of a boost to its points score after previously unidentified threatened Black Gum trees and breeding habitat for the Blue-Spotted Salamander were confirmed – much of the forest was clear cut and turned into a golf course and later, a subdivision.
The Ramsey Road Forest was assaulted by a developer who initiated clear cut of the trees in 1993, as soon as the ink was dry on the province’s wetland policy. This savage cut was responsible for the Niagara Region’s current tree protection by-law.
One of the effects of the cut was to separate what became a 10- acre linear forest, containing habitat for the threatened a species called the Round-Leaved Greenbrier, from the rest of the wetland. This separation denied the provincially significant status to the linear forest, making it vulnerable to development.
Efforts by the Ministry of Natural Resources, and a Jean Grandoni a veteran conservationist from Niagara Falls, resulted in saving of only two and a half acres of this linear forest as a result of a mediated settlement carried out by the Ontario Municipal Board, (OMB), in 2013.
Now most of the Ramsey Road Forest between Oldfield Road and the Welland River in Niagara Falls is protected by its status as a provincially significant wetland. Concerns for its fate however, are increased by the fact that the only voice to urge the province undertake biodiversity offsetting at the Niagara Falls arena meeting, was a developer connected with a development proposal here. It is governed by a process known as the Thundering Waters Secondary Plan.
In addition to Niagara Falls there are threats to provincially significant swamp forests in Fort Erie.
During the last provincial election candidates for all parties backed demands by Fort Erie’s business community and its municipal council that protections on wetlands within its urban boundaries be relaxed. This led to boast by the Liberal candidate that she had secured support from the Premier to alter provincial wetland policy. The current wetland review was set in motion by Premier Wynne a few months later.
One of the threatened wetlands in Fort Erie within its urban boundary is especially significant. This wetland is a swamp forest which shades both banks of the mouth of Frenchman’s Creek’s outlet into the Niagara River. It has some of the best fish habitat in Niagara and as a result, supports a spectacular heron population.
Development pressure on swamp forests in Niagara is strong along the entire length of the Queen Elizabeth Highway in Niagara Falls and Fort Erie. In 2012 the Niagara Falls Council attempted to secure an urban expansion here, under the guise of the Niagara Region’s Gateway policy proposal.
Taking part in the movement to protect Niagara’s threatened wetlands is one of the most vivid examples of wise thinking globally, while acting locally.
Come out to celebrate at Mahtay’s Cafe in downtown St. Catharines on Saturday, February 6th at 7p.m. to protect our swamp forests, one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.
John Bacher is a veteran conservationist in Niagara, Ontario and long-time member of the citizen group, Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. A past contributor of posts to Niagara At Large, his most recent book is called ‘Two Billion Trees and Counting – The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz’.
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