Results and Discussion
Ecological Targets and Existing Conditions
|High Quality Natural Cover||40% of watershed||28% of watershed|
|Woodlands||Woodlands 40% of watershed||34.9%|
|Wetland Cover||40% of historic watershed wetland coverage. Minimum 20% of watershed.||Historic wetland habitat remaining is 20 – 25%. Watershed wetland habitat is 18%.|
|Proportion of Watershed in "Best Policy Protection" Category||40 - 50%||21%|
|Proportion of Watershed in "Moderate Policy Protection" Category||10 - 20%||41%|
* Lake Simcoe and water bodies are not included in the above calculations. What is measured is the total land cover of the Lake Simcoe watershed. There is overlap between some of the categories, which explains why they do not add up to 100%.
Environmental Policy Mapping in the Lake Simcoe Watershed
The “map of environmental policy protections” shows us that 62% of the watershed’s land is subject to by natural heritage policies. That is a great start.
21% of the watershed is in the “Best Policy Protection” category, meaning it is generally protected by strong provincial policies. We would like to see this number go up by making sure that the features that should be protected in this category are identified, mapped, and protected in municipal Official Plans. And although 41% of the watershed is in the “Moderate Policy Protection” category, it is subject to death by a thousand cuts. This is because protections are weak and not permanent, and particularly in northern, rural and well forested parts of the watershed, permissions are often granted to alter the land use, cut down trees to build on the property, or subdivide properties.
The ecological value of the lands that are in this study’s “Moderate Policy Protection” category is less than those in the “Best Policy Protection” category, for various reasons. For instance, cropland gone fallow is often comprised of young trees and lower average ecological diversity. In some cases, land has simply not been studied in the depth required to know if it possesses the characteristics of natural features that are protected by robust provincial policies. Policy protection on such a piece of property would be low. But just because it’s a young forest does not mean it’s worthless. It could be a vital link between two significant forests. This could be remedied to some degree by the municipal adoption of new Growth Plan policies that protected linkages between protected features.
Legend: Lake Simcoe Watershed Map of Environmental Policy Protections
|Level||Definition||Examples of Permitted Activities|
|1. Best Policy Protection||These features are subject to policies that prevent or tightly restrict development or other land cover change on them. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required to demonstrate environmental impacts of permitted activities are minimal and can be mitigated. Level 1 includes mostly features protected by provincial policies:
|Moderate Policy Protection||These features are subject to policies that allow some site alterations or land cover change, having met criteria and conditions. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required to demonstrate that environmental impacts are minimal and can be mitigated. Level 2 includes:
|Not Protected||These areas do not contain features that are protected. Level 3 includes:
High Quality Natural Cover
There are two targets in the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan’s Shorelines and Natural Heritage Chapter that are key to the long-term ecological health of the watershed:
- “Achieve a greater proportion of natural vegetative cover in large high quality patches”;
- “Achieve a minimum 40 percent high quality natural vegetative cover in the watershed.
The province defined “high quality natural cover” (HQNC) and committed to studying and monitoring natural cover changes (LSPP policy 6.50 – M), but the LSPP is silent on protecting high quality natural cover. It has been ten years since the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan came into force, and we now have an opportunity to strengthen the policies of the Plan that need it.
So, how are we doing, and what should be changed in the LSPP to achieve these targets?
What do we have?
High quality natural cover is comprised of woodlands, wetlands and other rare vegetative cover communities such as alvars and prairie grasslands.
One of the criteria for HQNC is patch size; the Province mapped patches of natural cover 25 hectares or larger using orthophotography , and found that high quality natural cover makes up 28% of the watershed’s land.
Ground truthing of these preliminary results occurred between 2011 and 2017, but the scientific research has not been completed. Ontario’s map of HQNC is available here. ❐
How Well Protected is the High Quality Natural Cover?
Achieving a higher level of policy protection on more lands in the Lake Simcoe watershed relies on the identification and mapping of features that could be protected by policy. In 2015 the Ministry of Natural Resources released “Technical Definitions and Criteria for Identifying Key Natural Heritage Features and Key Hydrologic Features for the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan” which provides details for determining if a feature qualifies as a “woodland”, a “wetland” etc. There are different criteria for those areas within the Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine policy areas, and for northern sections of the Lake Simcoe watershed.
The province updated the mapping of the features that make up the high quality natural cover in 2011. But we need to know if those features are mapped in municipal Official Plans, and whether there are other features that fit the criteria which have not yet been evaluated, mapped and protected in Official Plans.
Due to the high ecological significance of patch size, it is of utmost importance to protect and maintain these 25 hectare plus patches mapped as High Quality Natural Cover using a three pronged approach:
- Identify and ground truth the quality of the natural features;
- Put them in Official Plans (maps,definitions and lower tier zoning);
- Support non-policy initiatives and land trusts that protect features within the 25 hectare patches that do not meet the criteria for protection.
Natural Heritage Systems: Provincial and Municipal Roles
Role of the Province in Natural Heritage Systems Planning
Ontario’s Growth Plan now contains very strong policies for protecting natural heritage within the Greater Golden Horseshoe, including the Lake Simcoe watershed, and in particular for protecting the linkage areas between patches of protected natural heritage. These policies are to be implemented through revisions to Official Plans by 2022 in upper-tier municipalities (Regions and Counties), and lower-tiers municipalities (Towns, Cities, Villages, etc..) within a year of the upper-tier Official Plans taking effect.
Ontario’s Greenbelt Policies
The advantage of the Greenbelt in the context of today’s provincial Natural Heritage System and the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and Plan is the containment of settlement boundaries, which helps protect farmland, in particular. This parameter requires that municipalities plan for more efficient land use and denser communities, which result in smaller development footprint and lower infrastructure costs.
The Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plans are the precedents for the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan’s Natural Heritage policies and the associated technical manual for identifying natural heritage features. The implementation of these policies is considered to be responsible for higher contributions to Natural Heritage feature identification in the maps of municipalities within those policy areas.
Lake Simcoe Watershed: Map of Natural Heritage Systems
Role of upper and Lower Tier Municipalities in Natural Heritage Systems Planning
The bright green in the southern portion of this map shows the effect of York Region identifying, mapping, and adding features to the NHS. While we recognize that Regions have an easier time than Counties in leading efforts like these due to their powers and decision-making structures, it is worth examining why York Region stands out.
The York Region Forest Management Plan 2016 establishes both overall canopy and urban canopy targets and goals, and links the benefits of forests to health, climate change mitigation and adaptation, flood mitigation, and recreational opportunities. York Region supports the development of local municipal urban forest management plans, and ensures that their policies and bylaws “support the protection and enhancement of canopy cover and woodland cover.”
Further, York Region’s Official Plan contains the detailed description of natural heritage feature types that correspond with the land use plans that apply (ORMCP, Greenbelt), which makes it easier for all involved to identify, protect, and map these features. The leadership and support of upper tier municipalities allows their lower tier municipalities to help build a more robust NHS.
Our map shows what a difference it makes, when upper and lower tier municipalities can add to the province’s NHS by identifying and mapping natural heritage features. We note, however, that other regions may have identified features for protection but not mapped them. This could explain the difference between York and the other upper tier municipalities.
Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority’s Natural Heritage System and Strategy
The LSRCA’s 2018 NHS provides an excellent solution for municipalities seeking to better protect natural heritage. The Conservation Authority has done extensive research and identified key linkages and areas for restoration that would add significant ecological value to the Natural Heritage Systems in place today in the watershed. Their 2007 NHS and Strategy was adopted into Official Plans (OPs) in Simcoe County, City of Barrie, Town of Innisfil, and the Town of East Gwillimbury.
How are lands removed from Environmental Protection?
Land owners, land speculators, and developers take a long view, and many aim to increase the value of their lands by changing their land’s zoning over time. They do this through Official Plan consultations and by appealing to amend the Official Plan (ie. expanding settlement areas, reducing environmental protection or removal agriculture designations) in order to be able to develop, or to sell their land with development potential.
If a landowner wants to develop their property, they hire environmental consultants to identify the significant ecological features on the site, and/or to prove that the land use change proposed will not affect the ecological function of the site, through an Environmental Impact Study (EIS). Municipal planners review the proposal and EIS and provide recommendations to the municipal Council. If the land is in the Conservation Authority’s regulated area, the proposal needs the approval of the Conservation Authority. If the municipality is deferring to the Conservation Authority for their opinion because environmental lands are affected, the Conservation Authority’s comments may or may not be accepted by the municipal staff and/or Council.
If a landowner does not like the decision of Council in respect to an Official Plan amendment, zoning amendment or if Council takes too long to respond to a request, the developer can challenge the decision, or non-decision by initiating proceedings against the municipality, Region or County by appealing the decision to the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal.
We argue that this is economically and administratively inefficient for all involved and that a more transparent and pro-active system that identifies, maps and protects the Natural Heritage System, not just the most ecologically important features, would reduce red tape all around.
Protection Beyond Policy: Conservation Easements and Agreements
Landowners wanting to protect environmental or farm features on their lands forever can do so through a Land Trust. Land Trusts are charitable organizations committed to permanent protection of lands with ecological, scenic, historical, agricultural and recreational values. Land Trusts can put protections for natural or cultural heritage features on the title of a property. They accept donations of land and they accept donations of money to buy land to protect for ever.
These Land Trusts operate in Simcoe County: Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, Couchiching Conservancy, Nature Conservancy of Canada and Huronia Land Conservancy. See the Ontario Land Trust Alliance website for information about local land trusts.