This is a friendly 'heritage moment'. Imagine the haunting, familiar whistling sound of the federal public service announcements signaling you’re going to learn something important from our history banks. Today, it’s about conservation authorities (CAs) and their original ‘raison d’être’ - the conservation of Ontario’s land and water resources.
Poor land, water and forestry practices in the early 1900s leading up to the 1940s created extensive drought, soil loss, deforestation and exacerbated flooding. In some areas such as Norfolk County, Whitchurch-Stouffville and Ganaraska, desert sands began taking over.
In the 1940s, the Province and a number of municipalities decided to establish conservation authorities in order to ‘protect, conserve and restore’ Ontario’s natural habitats. Over time, a lot of money was spent and an enormous amount of sweat and hard work took place and, as a result, significant progress was made.
Flash forward to today and we’re still growing, of course, and unfortunately now we’re in a nature emergency. Biodiversity continues to be severely threatened around the world and even here in Canada where apparently we have a good chunk of the globe’s wild forests and wetlands.
Both the global Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) are ringing the alarm bells about the decline of nature. CPAWS is declaring a Nature Emergency!
As these agencies point out, we need to pay attention to this because as species decline, so does the capacity of our ecosystems (forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, etc) to provide clean air, water, food, climate adaptation and economic support. And, we rely on these natural resources Every. Single. Day.
Unfortunately, it’s no surprise when CPAWS tells us that the foremost driver of nature’s decline is habitat degradation as a result of human land use practices. The solution? Protecting and restoring habitat must be the cornerstone of any strategy to address this crisis.
Ahem…Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities can help with this problem here in Ontario, and, in fact, have been doing so for many years if you remember the heritage lesson a few paragraphs back.
Today, conservation authorities are well known in conservation circles for their programs such as tree planting, water quality improvement, agricultural best management practices, natural heritage, water monitoring, green infrastructure, as well as, habitat restoration and protection which are integrated and spread across a watershed. They also proactively acquire and protect new lands if possible – especially in areas that harbour important natural habitats, species or ecosystem functions.
Conservation Authority Watershed Approach and Collaborations
The success of these CA programs is amplified by using a watershed approach and leveraging the resources and expertise of a wide range of government and nongovernment collaborations. Conservation authorities work with all levels of government (municipal, provincial and federal) as well as many agencies, private sector businesses and landowners.
But, it takes time to restore habitats and it requires an ongoing commitment.
Sometimes conservation authority efforts are able to reverse or improve habitats – other times, there just aren’t enough resources for improvement and they are only able to ‘hold the line’.
The benefits of this work include abundant wildlife, tree and plant diversity, pollinator, bird and fish protection, improved water quality, stormwater management, water conservation, carbon capture, safe drinking water, healthy soils and recreational green spaces that can be enjoyed by residents.
Ontarians share all of these benefits. They come first for local watershed communities and then, over time, they can be rolled up and considered on a broader, more provincial basis. They support healthy great lakes, contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, help sustain Ontario’s economy and support a healthy agricultural sector which provides our food.
Conservation Authority Watershed Report Cards Monitor Ontario’s Habitats
Conservation authorities also monitor and report on the state of Ontario’s habitat through their watershed report cards which are released every five years. Using the federal government’s benchmark of what constitutes healthy habitats (30% forested cover), conservation authorities assess forest conditions which include various types of habitats in addition to forests.
In 2018, these numbers ranged from mostly Cs and Ds (urban and agricultural areas) to a few As (eastern and more northern areas of Ontario). Moving forward, we need to do what we can to protect and build resilience into those habitats we have already, increase our protected areas if possible, and guide development so that it is less damaging.
CPAWS’ report says that Canada is a ‘potential superpower’. Ok, we’ll buy that and if Ontarians feel nature is important and worth protecting – for whatever reason – then conservation authorities will continue to dig in, for the long-term.
Author: Conservation Ontario staff