Ford Wields Axe Over Activities Conservation Authorities Host to Fund Eco-Programs

Will Niagara West MPP and Ford Government Rep Sam Oosterhoff be Among the Last to Enjoy a Wedding at NPCA’s Ball’s Falls Conservation Area?

What more will Ontario Premier Doug Ford do to province’s cash-strapped Conservation Authorities?

And How Much Right Does The Province Have Left To Dictate Anything  Conservation Authorities Do When It Contributes So Little To Conservation Budgets?

A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper

Posted September 9th, 2019 on Niagara At Large

This August, in a letter to Conservation Ontario – an umbrella group for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) and 35 other Conservation Authorities across the province – Jeff Yurek, Ontario’s Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, recommended that Conservation Authorities begin to “wind down” any activities that “fall outside the scope of (their) core mandate.”

Kim Gavine, general manager of Conservation Ontario, responded that the recommendation, or “request as Yurek put it, in the minister’s August 16th letter “stunned” Conservation Authorities and left them “caught completely by surprise.”

Ontario Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister Jeff Yurek stuns Conservation Authorities with letter suggesting they should “wind down” some activities.

In the wake of Yurek’s letter, Conservation Authorities were left wondering what “activities” he was referring to and what exactly the Ford government he serves views as their “core mandate.”

As the dog days of August dragged on, Ontario’s Conservation Authorities and the public at large were treated to at least a partial list of what activities the provincial government has in mind.

In media interviews, Yurek and one of his spokespersons were quoted in newspapers listing activities like zip-lining, maple syrup festivals, and photography and wedding permits in their conservation areas among the activities that should be wound down.

“Over the years, conservation authorities have expanded past their core mandate into activities such as zip-lining, maple syrup festivals and photography and wedding permits,” Yurek was quoted saying in an August 21st story in the Toronto Star.

Weddings, just to focus on one the possible activities on the Ford government’s wind down list, have been very popular at the NPCA’s Ball’s Falls Conservation Area for many years now and through the fees the NPCA charges wedding parties for use of the facilities on the area’s scenic lands, it has also been an important source of revenue the NPCA uses to help cover the costs of watershed restoration and other conservation projects that are arguably part of its core mandate.

Niagara West MPP and Ford Government representative Sam Oosterhoff and his new wife recently enjoy their wedding reception at Ball’s Falls Conservation Area. (This photo was taken this August on front steps of historic Ball family residence.) Will they be among the last to do so as Ford government eyes winding down such activities at Conservation Authority sites? A Facebook image.

And it just so happens, as Niagara At Large recently learned from sources outside of the NPCA and this region of the province, that just two weeks before Yurek “stunned” Conservation Authorities with his request that such activities be wound down, that Niagara West MPP and Ford government representative Sam Oosterhoff, had his wedding at the Ball’s Falls Conservation Area, located in the Niagara municipality of Lincoln.

One of the many guests at wedding, sources confirmed was Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Assuming that the Premier and his government have been talking about winding down activities like weddings at Conservation Areas across Ontario for a while, and have not just come up with this idea on a spur-of-the-moment whim, who would any member of the government have their wedding at one of these areas?

Why would they have a wedding or any of the other activities names for a possible wind down if, as the government suggests, such activities may be a burden, rather than a benefit, for the province’s taxpayers.

And given all of that, why would any member of the Ford government and his or her family and friends possibly be among the last to enjoy a wedding at the Ball’s Falls Conservation Area? Why, when at least some members of the public might see it as hypocritical?

Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff. “There is no hypocrisy.” Intent of Minister Jeff Yurek’s letter has been “misconstrued.”

When Niagara At Large put this to Oosterhoff, he emailed back with the following response – “There is no hypocrisy,” the Niagara West MPP said. “I’m happy to say my wife and I have enjoyed many hours hiking and walking the trails of Balls Falls, as well as viewing the lovely stream, and so felt it would be an excellent place to hold our wedding reception.

“I’m not going to get into all the family and wedding details, as we intentionally kept it small and private,” Oosterhoff added. “I hope you can understand that.”

In a follow-up email to Niagara At Large, Oosterhoff and the Environment Minister’s office continued by saying; “It’s unfortunate that some have misconstrued the intent and purpose of (Yurek’s) letter. What the Ministry has stated is that this about giving municipalities and taxpayers more control and transparency of Conservation Authority programs and services.

“The (Ontario Conservation) Act is very clear that municipalities will still be able to enter into agreements with conservation authorities for non-core services. There is only one taxpayer and it is our job to ensure we are using Ontarians’ hard earned money appropriately.”

Making sure taxpayers’ money is used appropriately sounds good, but does the Ford government understand that the activities it is looking at winding down are generating revenue that make up for a reduction of funding Conservation Authorities have been getting from senior levels of governments in recent years?

Does it understanding that this revenue is used to help Conservation Authorities across the province cover the costs of maintaining Conservation Areas and to protect and enhance the watersheds under their jurisdiction?

Over the past 17 years, from 1991 to 2018, funding grants from the province to the NPCA alone have plunged from 40 per cent of its overall annual revenues to a mere four per cent. In the 1970s, the provincial share totalled more than 50 per cent.

So as one way to make up for the shortfall, the NPCA and other Conservation Authorities across the province have taken to doing what the Ontario Parks Commission in Niagara Falls has being doing, more or less successfully, over its 126 year history.

They have been hosting activities for a fee on their lands to generate the revenue they need to cover the costs of their operations – a strategy that, if it is allowed to work, takes at least some pressure off Conservation Authorities to go cap in hand to the taxpayers.

On these charts, from a recent NPCA budget report, watch the revenue the Conservation Authority receives from the provincial government (highlighted in blue) go from more than 50 per cent 1971 to four per cent last year. This year, under the Ford government, the province’s share has shrunk even more.

When Niagara At Large went to the NPCA recently to ask about the role these activities play in funding its operations, we received the following comments from the Conservation Authority’s Acting Senior Manager of Operations and Special Projects, Adam Christie – “I would like to start by mentioning that our Land Department at the NPCA manages 42 Conservation Areas which covers 2,700 hectares of land,” Christie said.

“Of those 42 Conservation Areas, we use four properties to operate revenue-generating services such as weddings, outdoor educational programming, camping, festivals, including the annual Ball’s Falls Thanksgiving Festival), and outdoor recreation such as Treetop Trekking and Wakeboarding.”

“All of these services generate net revenue that helps offset operational costs within our organization,” the NPCA operations and projected manager added.  “These services also bring enjoyment to many and allow people to experience outdoor recreation in a variety of ways.”

Perhaps some of what Christie and others from Conservation Authorities across Ontario have said about the financial benefits (not to mention the popularity) of these activities, has sunk.

Perhaps even just a tiny bit of it has in the days a weeks following Yurek’s ‘stunning’ letter because between those messages about the financial benefits and an outcry from members of a public supportive of the kind of eco-projects Conservation Authorities should be undertaking on our behalf, the Ford Government has cooled its pistols and agreed to engage in more consultation with Conservation Authorities, municipalities and other interested parties.

As the Ford government proceeds with this consultation process, perhaps it should also be mindful of the fact that, from a dollar and cents point of view, it has become a very minor player on a team of players – most specifically local municipalities – that contribute so much more to the revenues Conservation Authorities need to carry on their operations.

New board members at NPCA have been working this year to get conservatoin and watershed restoration programs and projects back on track after years of controversy and chaos under former board and administration.

And we don’t hear municipal councillors in Niagara or neighbouring Hamilton and Haldimand complaining about the NPCA hosting weddings, festivals and other activities to help generate some of the revenue for their operations.

Indeed, when successive provincial governments in Ontario have gone from covering more than 50 per cent of a Conservation Authority’s overall budget to about four per cent of the NPCA’s $11 million in overall revenues last year, and an expected, pathetic 2.7 per cent this year, how much of a right does the provincial government have left – particularly on fiduciary grounds – to have much of a say in anything when it comes to what Conservation Authorities do or how they operate?

If the Ford government is going to be this cheap when it comes to funding programs for protecting and preserving what is left of our region’s and province’s natural heritage, it ought to be a lot less the bully or the dictator when it comes to telling Conservation Authorities what they can and cannot do.

Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s interim CEO Gayle Wood says conversations will take place with NPCA board members and area municipalities before any winding down of activities takes place

In the meantime, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s interim CEO Gayle Wood told local reporters recently that the NPCA “won’t be winding down any programs until such time as we have had conversations and consultation with our board of directors and with the participating municipalities of the Region of Niagara, City of Hamilton and Haldimand County.”

That sounds like a very good plan, and those conversations and consultation should involve any and all concerned members of the public too, including nature clubs and other community groups that wish to work with the NPCA on environmental restoration and conservation projects.

Niagara At Large will be following all of this closely and will have more to say about the Ford government and its assault on the province’s Conservation Authorities and on environmental programs and safeguards at large in a commentary later this week.

Stay Tuned!

To read a related commentary piece posted this August on Niagara At Large, click on – .

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