Reports Suppressed by City of Niagara Falls To Support Destruction of Thundering Waters Forest

A Commentary by John Bacher
Posted July 9th, 2018 on Niagara At Large

On May 8, 2018, near midnight and immediately following a required Statutory Public Meeting under the Planning Act, the  Council for the City of Niagara Falls, Ontario voted to approve what is now termed the Riverfront development.

This would, if actually approved by the Ontario Land Use Planning Tribunal, (LPAT) involve the destruction of 120 acres of diverse natural habitats, some of which are now protected wetlands.

Dense Blazing Star, (threatened Wildflower), discovered on proposed Riverfront lands by Daniel Nardone

Absent from the voluminous detail on which the Niagara Falls Planning Department based its recommendations on the city’s website are two letters from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, (MNRF) These letters from MNRF are dated December 11, 2017 and January 25, 2018. Both were signed by Tara McKenna, Senior Planner for the Guelph District of MNRF.
The MNRF letter from Tara McKenna that was released to council on April 30, 2018 does refer to the suppressed documents. This published letter moreover stresses that this April 30 correspondence does not address all of MNRF’s concerns. This letter stresses that its commentary should be “considered in combination with our previous correspondence.” Both city councillors and the public concerned with the fate of this important Carolinian refuge for endangered wildlife were kept in the dark about what the “previous correspondence” said.

By omitting two MNRF reports through correspondence suppression, the Niagara Falls Planning Director Alex Herlovitch, did not have to address many issues to Niagara Falls City Council. One of these is the threatened habitat of an Endangered species, the Acadian Flycatcher. MNRF also chastised Dougan’s successor Savanta as consultant for GR Canada for failing to look for the Acadian Flycatcher in 2017, where it was earlier located in 2015.

Concerns also about protecting Acadian Flycatcher habitat were addressed at length by MNRF in the suppressed correspondence. They do not appear in the final letter which Herlovitch chose to share with the public and the Niagara Falls City Council. This omission permitted GR Canada solicitor, Jane Pepino, to claim that MNRF concerns had been addressed by the City of Niagara Fall and her client.

The Acadian Flycatcher is a highly Endangered species, with at the most 75 breeding pairs surviving in Canada. This is detailed to the most recent, Environment Canada Recovery Plan, which stresses the importance of protecting large blocks of Carolinian forests. If its numbers increased it could play an important role in forest protection, becoming again a significant scale predator of the tree destroying tent caterpillar.

The Endangered Acadian Flycatcher requires large intact forests to survive. This means that the extensive tree removal that Riverfront involves would be a threat to the Canadian population. In Canada the species lives only in the deciduous Carolinian forest zone. It benefits from close proximity to Acadian Flycatchers being close by in the United States. The species however, is in decline in the northern United States also.

In their letter of December 11, 2017 MNRF challenged claims by Savanta that the Acadian Flycatcher was not present for a sufficient length of time ( they suggested three years) for the forest to be considered protected habitat of an endangered species. Here the Ministry stated that based on findings by GR Canada’s former ecological consultants, Dougan Associates, that they “can confirm that Acadian Flycatcher habitat is on site.”

MNRF scolded Savanata for not looking for the Acadian Flycatcher where it was found earlier by Dougan. On December 11, 2017 McKenna told Herlovitch that the area Savanta examined “in 2017 did not include the original location where the male Acadian Flycatcher was identified in 2015.

In addition, this species is known to have site fidelity but may not utilize it on an annual basis. As such MNRF is of the opinion that that additional studies carried out have not sufficiently demonstrated an absence of the species on site.”

In response to the approach taken by Savanta MNRF indicated that it would define the habitat area of the Endangered Acadian Flycatcher. This would have excluded development from part of the Riverfront lands. MNRF announced it would do this through procedures established under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act.

The day after the MNRF letter was received by Herlovitch, Savanta agreed, faced with the prospect of unilateral imposition of a protected area for the Acadian Flycatcher, to provide habitat mapping for MNRF to review.

When Savanta’s March 2018 Addendum to their Environmental Impact Study (EIS) came out, there was no mention of the earlier MNRF comments, or of Savanta’s pledge to assist in mapping Acadian Flycatcher habitat after their December 12 meeting with MNRF. The failure to address the habitat of the Endangered Acadian Flycatcher did not provoke public criticism because of the suppression of the MNRF correspondence.

Old growth forest in area recently identified in secret report by MNRF. Photo Martin Munoz

The battles between Savanta and MRNF over the Acadian Flycatcher are similar to another dispute detailed in the suppressed letters over the extent of forest protection in the proposed Riverfront development area.

There are on the Riverfront lands a number of blocks of identified provincially significant forests, delineated by the Niagara Regional Official Plan. These are designated as Environmental Conservation Areas. (ECAs) According to the regional plan development cannot take place on these lands unless an approved Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) illustrates that there is no loss of ecological function.

In their EIS studies, Savanta argued that the ECA forests were about to lose their ecological function as native Green Ash proceed to die off from Ash Boer infestation to be replaced with invasive, exotic Buckthorn.

A critique of these arguments were spelled out by MNRF in their December 11, 2017 letter. Here McKenna wrote that, the Savanta “EIS seems to suggest that the woodland areas …should not be considered significant because of further canopy decline due to Emerald Ash Boer.”

McKenna found that although, “The potential future decline in ash canopy may change the dominant canopy species but not necessarily the functional value of the woodland. The woodlands are contiguous with existing forested wetlands and upland forested areas which contribute to the overall species and structural diversity, size of the larger wooded areas, and the functional linkages between the different features within the Study Area and beyond.”

She further stressed MNRF’s Natural Heritage Reference Manual detailed how despite ash die off impacted forests would continue to provide important ecological functions such as woodland area size and “interior area, linkages, and proximity to other natural heritage features.”

A look at some of the provincially significant wetlands inside Thundering Waters Forest

McKenna’s criticism was based on the contents of the original Savanta EIS released when Riverfront was unveiled in October 2017.

Although the subsequent Addendum to the Savantat EIS was purported to be a response to comments from MNRF, their earlier criticism of the implications of Buckthorn die off was not acknowledged. This helped Savanta make in this document even more extreme conclusions about the impact of Buckthorn, which were further inflated by Herlovitch.

Herlovitch amplified Savanta’s comments on the Buckthorn issue in his May 8, 2018 report to Niaara Falls City Council. He wrote that Savanta’s “EIS has demonstrated that woodlands within the subject lands while currently meeting the Region’s criteria for significance, will lose their significance within two to five years due to losses resulting from Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm Disease. These trees will be replaced, if left unchecked, with invasive species such as Buckthorn. At this point the woodlands will be no longer considered significant.”

By suppressing MNRF’s comments on Ash Die Off Herlovitch was able to engineer a science fiction approach to land use planning guided by Savanta. The suppression also helped him to craft Condition 11 of his recommendations, which so far, by its ambiguity, has prevented any appeal to the LPAT of council’s decision.

This calls for future studies to produce “maps illustrating the areas recommended for woodland removal.” The entire premise of this recommendation is based on a trick which endorses the science fiction approach of Savanta through burying the contrary views of MNRF.

Citizen support for saving the wetlands in the Thundering Waters Forest

These suppressed December 11, 2017 comments by MNRF also dealt with another issue subsequently ignored by Savanta and their draft EIS. This is that much of the proposed Riverfront lands north of the Con Rail Drain are old growth forests.

McKenna pointed out that earlier EIS work by Dougan had found that “old growth forest elements” were located here. The old growth nature of the forests here also meant that they should be considered to be provincially Significant Wildlife Habitat.

McKenna further stressed that the omission of old growth forest recognition reflected questionable changes that Savanta had made from Dougan’s original Ecological Land Classification (ELC) mapping. She pointed out that “MNRF staff would appreciate clarification on how this was carried out and if there are any data sheets showing that it has been remapped. It appears that a combination of Ontario Wetland Evaluation System mapping and ELC have been used to make a new map.”

In his report to council Herlovitch did recommend much of the protection for potential bat habitat in Riverfront based on the April 30, 2018 MNRF comments which were released. He did not address however, the reality that these areas are within the same old growth forest tract identified by MNRF in their earlier December 11, 2017 comments. These areas moreover, requiring a lot of oak, maple and hickory trees for bat roosting to take place, are not vulnerable to forest canopy loss from ash die off.

Since MNRF’s concerns about bats were extensively addressed in the published April 30th letter, some of their comments were adopted into the May 8, 2018 report by Herlovitch.

The main impact was to designate the formerly protected Wetland Number One as a Special Policy Area because of its potential significance as a bat maternity roosting area. This did not include however, all of the potential bat habitat, even that mapped by Savanta in Figure 13 of their EIS Addendum.

Savanta’s EIS Addendum shows an area of potential bat habitat west of an abandoned rail line at the northern edge of Riverfront. This is part of the area identified as Old Growth Forest by MNRF in their December 11, 2018 letter. In their later January 15, 2018 letter, MNRF requested that a detailed snag density study be published as a prelude to bat monitoring. This was not undertaken, although such snags, (dead trees) are often found in Old Growth areas.

In his May 8, 2018 report to council Herlovitch made a detailed list of currently ECA protected forests. In his report there was a map which listed “woodlands to be removed (due to loss of canopy:”.

The report has a red line going from this map legend to the doomed forests. One of these doomed forests was identified by MNRF’s December 11, 2017 as being old growth. It was also identified in Savanta’s EIS as candidate bat roosting habitat.

To meet this criteria the old growth forest would have to have a lot of old oak, hickory and maple trees. These are conditions which would prevent canopy loss from Emerald Ash Boer predation.

The two suppressed letters from MNRF also contained important comments on the significance of a threatened moist prairie-savannah species, Dense Blazing Star. Although since the issue of its habitat protection was addressed in the published April 30, 2018 from MNRF letter, the unpublished documents refuted claims by Savanta that MNRF regarded the species as an artificially introduced population.

On December 11, 2017 MNRF wrote that Savanta’s approach to the Dense Blazing Star as not native to Niagara “is not consistent with the Endangered Species Act.” They requested that the habitat “be mapped and submitted to MNRF.”

Niagara conservationist John Bacher in Thundering Waters Forest

This still has not been done by Savanta. Although it claims to have excluded the Dense Blazing Star from the development area, the version of Amendment 117 approved by Niagara Falls City Council on May 8, 2018, still has an arrow for a future road going through where the population is located.

Basically what two blocked MNRF letters reveal is what reasonably environmentally concerned people, aware of the precious bio-diversity of Carolinian forests, would have known all along.

This is that cutting up large blocks of native deciduous forest is fatal to species diversity. It also shows that claims to legitimize these assaults based on the triumph of Buckthorn are a junk version of science fiction

This commentary was written by. John Bacher, a long-time conservation activist in Niagara, Ontario, a Greenbelt Campaign leader at Sierra Club Ontario, and a member of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS) (link is external).

For more from John Bacher, click on

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