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Ontario needs to make conservation a priority

Have you ever been hiking on Manitoulin Island or in the Niagara Escarpment and paused for a moment to appreciate the ethereal beauty of the natural land?

Conservation is the only way to ensure that certain areas remain protected  in Ontario. The problem is that it is no easy feat to keep land from the greedy hands of major developers, and every single day more of these natural habitats disappears. Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy is a land trust that is dedicated to ensuring natural landmarks are conserved in the province. Unfortunately, the province of Ontario has removed their funding and this leaves the charity in a difficult position to continue protecting natural regions.

As a land trust, Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy accepts donations of land for conservation and also helps property owners to protect their own land from buyers. The conservancy is spearheaded by Robert Barnett, a passionate conservation advocate and architect by trade. The charity has 151 nature reserves making up 47 km altogether in the province. Biosphere focuses operations in the escarpment, but has several reserves across the province and is the second largest conservation charity in Ontario.

Thomson Reserve near Wiarton, Ont. Photo provided by Bob Barnett, Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy.
Thomson Reserve near Wiarton, Ont. Photo provided by Bob Barnett, Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy.

However, the charity has been facing roadblocks since their funding was removed in 2012. In that same year, the provincial government released a new plan called biodiversity: it’s in our nature to compliment Canada’s decision to sign a mandate towards conserving 17 per cent of Ontario land by 2020. The plan indicated that by 2020, “17 per cent of terrestrial and aquatic systems are conserved through well-connected networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures”. Four years later, conservation areas stand at 4.4 per cent.

“The minister announced this plan in 2012 and now of course nothing is happening. They aren’t increasing the land protected area at all,” Barnett says. “The premier has given the minister a mandate to protect our biodiversity and once again, nothing is being done. The environmental commissioner at the time, Diane Sax, recommended that they put funding into protected areas. This means the environmental commissioner, the premier, and the biodiversity initiative are being ignored.”

More than that, the province removed the charity’s funding the same year they introduced the new plan to increase biodiversity conservation. Previously, Biosphere received $30,000 to $40,000 in provincial funding to support operations at the charity. Now, Barnett can only rely on cash donations and limited federal funding for the projects.

“We spend $100,000 a year to protect the land, for legal fees and getting inventories done. It costs $5000 to receive a land donation because of appraisals and paperwork,” Barnett says. “That is a lot of money for a charity and we just don’t have it.”

Barnett believes that the funding cuts are in part due to the budget cuts the Ontario ministry of natural resources has experienced in the last five years. That being said, natural areas bring $84 billion to the economy and the conservation funding only costs $135,000. The Ontario government could easily fund such a low budget to complete such an important task.

Cape Hurd where one of the cottages to rent is located. Photo provided by Bob Barnett, Escarpment Biosphere conservancy.
Cape Hurd where one of the cottages to rent is located. Photo provided by Bob Barnett, Escarpment Biosphere conservancy.

One MPP is trying to make a difference for property owners interested in conservation. Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle has introduced a private member’s bill to lower the property tax on private properties that place covenants protecting the land on their property. If a person owns a piece of land, they have the option to contact a land trust such as Biosphere to create a list of restrictions — known as covenants — to prevent future land owners from ever building a gravel pit on the land for example. In exchange for placing covenants on the land, homeowners receive a $100,000 tax receipt from Biosphere as a part of the land trust.

Placing covenants on the land lowers the property value, but the province continues to charge them the same property tax anyways. Colle has presented a bill to lower the property tax for conservation covenants to zero. The bill has had its first reading in 2012 and has since been stalled.  It is yet another example of the province not putting conservation of the land as a priority.

It is apparent that the province needs to pull up its britches and take conservation seriously. The fact that only four per cent of land in Ontario is protected when there is a mandate in place to have 17 per cent is unacceptable. The funding for Biosphere and other conservation charities needs to be reinstated and hopefully Colle’s bill will pass second reading and become law. Conservation doesn’t appear to be a priority — let’s make it one!