A delicate balance between rights and trees
The continued loss of forest cover in Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry “has the potential to create long-reaching impacts for now and the future.”
Yet, since most of the land is in private hands, government’s role is limited in any efforts to counter the effects of deforestation, which is difficult to accurately quantify, and some of which bypasses regulations.
Those are some of the conclusions contained in a report presented to SDG counties council members by counties planner Alison McDonald, who noted, “Governments are challenged with balancing property rights and protecting the natural environment that works to benefit us all.”
With municipal elections taking place in October, any concrete steps will be the responsibility of the new council. However, the consensus among members attending the presentation was that plans should start now on the report’s recommendations.
“Because the forest cover issue is complex and far reaching, staff are looking for council’s direction on what opportunities it should further explore, as many of these opportunities have significant budgetary and staffing impacts,” reads the report from Ms. McDonald, who also chairs the Forest Conservation Working Group.
The document outlines ways to deal with a number of problems that are contributing to deforestation.
One of the issues is that some local developers intentionally clear land prior to filing planning applications. “This approach circumvents requirements to protect wetlands and endangered species. This also avoids potential reforestation requirements (where the applicant pays to replace lost forest cover).”
Property owners who clear large tracts of land are not being assessed appropriately because the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) does not ac- tively identify recently converted land.
This delay in reassessment “potentially incentivizes marginal land clearing” because there is no financial penalty, or leaves cleared lands in a “halfway state,” since there is no incentive to clear and actively farm the property.
Similarly, MPAC does not have a mechanism to quickly identify and reassess properties that have been reforested.
Farm property owners are exempt from paying property taxes on the first 20 acres of forested land they own.
Experts have determined that a minimum 30 per cent forest cover is required to maintain a healthy, sustainable ecosystem.
A forest cover analysis completed in 2014 confirmed that SDG had a 29 per cent forest cover.
Forest cover mapping, updated every six years, will not be refreshed again until 2020.
“Local observation indicates forest cover loss is accelerating since the last imagery was flown in 2014. Note this 2014 imagery was used to calculate the current forest cover in SDG, and, it is widely recognized that this
value underestimates the current amount of forest in the County. The County is lacking up-to-date information on forest cover, which would help to support decision making,” the report advises.
Only 4.5 per cent of the land in the three counties is publicly owned; SDG owns 1.2 per cent. Public ownership of environmentally significant lands is the most reliable way to maintain a minimum level of forest and natural cover, the report observes.
Since most of the forests are on private land, “Property owners bear most of the responsibility for environmental protection and often face potential expense or lost development rights due to restrictions. Recognizing the need to strike a balance between the environment and landowner rights, there is a need for private landowner incentives as part of an overall forest conservation strategy. Economic incentives can encourage and assist landowners in maintaining and enhancing forest cover on private lands.”
However, many property owners do not take advantage of reforestation incentives. Some owners are “uncomfortable”
with the cost of drawing up a managed forest plan, while others are simply not aware of the benefits available.
“The County has sufficient financial capacity to establish a fund to secure lands within SDG that are best conserved in a natural state. These lands would be managed and promoted for recreation and tourism and form part of SDG’s forest management program. Ideally, this acquisition program would consult with representatives from the agricultural community to identify marginal lands that could be purchased, maintained and/ or reforested. An eco- gift program could also be managed in tandem with this acquisition program,” the report says.
SDG is steadily losing forests as a result of conversion to agri-
cultural uses, forests being cleared for industrial development and aggregate extraction, often in advance of the environmental studies that ensure best management practices are followed, council members were told.
Clearing land does not require any approval from a government body.
Not all forested lands within SDG are considered significant under the counties official plan; not all development requires approval under the SDG planning regime.
To address this “gap,” a research project could be undertaken to present options to the county and staff could work with provincial officials to enforce the Endangered Species Act for cases of “blatant mal-
A site alteration by-law could be employed to prevent the removal of trees in certain areas and ensure best management practices are enforced along water courses and in wetlands.
The county has not done a full and thorough assessment of the natural heritage system, which would identify significant features and key natural corridors and their linkages with other features and areas.
Local municipalities, neighbouring counties, and conservation authorities are interested in a collaborative Natural Heritage Study, which would take one to two years to complete and likely require the services of a consultant. The assessment would include public consultation.