“We are here to talk about a global opportunity for the Niagara River.” – Veteran conservationist and Canadian Co-chair of the Niagara River Ramsar Designation Steering Committee Jocelyn Baker to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s board of directors, November 20th, 2019
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted November 20th, 2019 on Niagara At Large
The Canadian side of the Niagara River is one giant step closer to getting the world-wide recognition it deserves as a wetland of international importance.
At a meeting this November 20th of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s board of directors, the board unanimously agreed to endorse a special wetland designation for the Canadian side of the Niagara River – a designation that is ultimately approved under the Ramsar Convention, first signed in 1971 in the City of Ramsar, and now boasting 170 member nations around the world, including Canada and the United States.
The board’s endorsement places the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) back on the side of supporting such a prestigious designation for the river – something that former NPCA managers and board members backed away from in the wake of fears expressed by some over the past few years that such a move may have negative repercussions for what developers and farmers can or cannot do on lands falling within the Niagara River watershed.
The endorsement is also a credit to Jocelyn Baker, Canadian Co-Chair of the Niagara River Ramsar Designation Steering Committee and veteran conservationist who is also a former NPCA water restoration manager, and to a team of dedicated volunteers on her committee who have been working to achieve the designation for this iconic river since 2013.
This past October, half of her steering committee’s dream came true when its Ramsar committee counterparts across the border, having received all the endorsements they needed from councils for Erie and Niagara Counties, New York, from towns and cities along the river, and from a number of other parties, celebrated the official designation of the American side of the Niagara River as a wetland of international importance.
“Right now we have half a designated river and we hope that the other half is designated soon,” said Baker during a meeting hosted in Niagara-on-the-Lake last month by another volunteer group called Friends of One Mile Creek.
Jajean Rose-Burney, the U.S. Co-chair of the Niagara River Ramsar Designation Steering Committee and executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy who joined Baker at the November 20th NPCA board meeting, said people on his side of the river are looking forward to the day when the Canadian side of the Niagara is officially designated too.
If and when that happens, said Rose-Burney, the Niagara River will be the first transboundary site in all of the Americas to receive a global wetland designation under the Ramsar rules.
Since the Ramsar Convention was first signed, and since Canada signed on in 1981, more than 2000 sites around the world have been declared wetlands of international importance. Thirty-seven of those sites are in Canada and since the U.S. signed on in 1986, 39 are located in that country.
To qualify for aRamsar designation, a waterbody has to meet at least one of nine criteria that include (just to outline a few) the ability to support vulnerable, endangered species, the ability to support 20,000 or more water birds, the ability to support significant numbers of indigenous fish species, and to provide an important food source and spawning areas for fish.
The Niagara River, thanks to decades of work by citizen groups and governments on both sides of the river to significantly reduce discharges of pollution to it, meets all nine criteria. That makes the river one of only a handful of Ramsar sites around the world that meet every single one of the criteria.
Following the NPCA board’s endorsement of a designation this week, the Conservation Authority’s interim CAO, Gayle Wood, and members of the current board came over to Baker and Rose-Burney to shake their hands and thank them and members of their committees for their work.
What a marked contrast this was to the past six or seven years when citizens across the Niagara region experienced NPCA board members (all of them now gone) and NPCA administrators at the time who gave them every reason to believe that conservation, and the protection and preservation of natural resources was no longer the body’s primary focus.
It was particularly good to watch the positive reception that Jocelyn Baker received from the NPCA’s current CAO and board.
For those who have not been following what was unfolding at the NPCA before Gayle Wood and the new board came along, Jocelyn Baker was let go from her job by the old guard at the Conservation Authority for reasons that no other individual or agency, including Environment Canada, that worked with her and respected both her passion and professionalism could figure out (other than to wonder if the reason had something to do with no longer wanting dedicated conservationists in the building).
To make matters worse, the old guard filed a lawsuit against Baker after she wrote a letter, alerting a Niagara area MPP’s attention to workplace morale and harassment problems at the Conservation Authority – problems that were later confirmed in a report released last year by the Ontario Auditor General following a lengthy investigation of NPCA operations.
Earlier this year, after a new NPCA board settled in, the lawsuit was rightfully dropped. And now here was the board endorsing long-time goal of Baker and her team to achieve a Ramsar designation for the Niagara River.
Baker’s steering committee has also received support for the designation over the past few years from the councils for the Town of Fort Erie and City of Niagara Falls, and from Ontario Power Generation.
It is still in need of support from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Region’s council and the Niagara Parks Commission for a designation that Baker and her team are quick to stress does not come with any regulations on what public and private parties can or cannot do on lands along the river.
“The Ramsar Convention is voluntary and does not impose regulation or restrict user rights through the designation process,” says a write-up circulated by the steering committee. “The purpose of the Convention is to promote the conservation and wise use of water-based ecosystems, including wetlands, lakes and rivers.”
And why wouldn’t all of us who make this region of the world our home want to promote the conservation and wise use of an ecosystem as iconic and as vital to the health of our lives and the economies of our communities as the Niagara River?
Niagara At Large will have more news and commentary on the ongoing work to achieve a Ramsar designation for the Niagara River in the days and weeks ahead.
To watch Jocelyn Baker and Jajean Rose-Burney make their presentation to the NPCA’s board of directors this past November 20th, and the board discussion that concluded with an endorsement, click on the screen below, and drag the red ball at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen to the 40.4 minute mark –
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