CHESTERVILLE – The monthly Dundas Federation of Agriculture meeting Wed., Sept. 5 was intended to feature a special presentation on forest cover loss within SD&G and provide an opportunity for municipal candidates to get a better understanding of agricultural issues. But ultimately it highlighted the gridlock between farmers and a looming critical environmental situation and the reluctance of potential municipal leaders to ask poignant questions to open meaningful dialogue.
Jackie Pemberton, Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) representative for Zone 11, began the evening with some opening remarks stressing the importance of understanding and communication between the agricultural community and municipal governments.
“We find today that our municipal councils are so far removed from the agricultural family that we’re constantly having to educate on things we have to work with, including legislation and regulations,” she said.
A document put together by the OFA of what matters to agriculture, including official plans, zoning bylaws, municipal bylaws and agricultural representation was also forwarded to all the candidates in order to prepare them for the upcoming debates.
Alison McDonald, the counties’ manager of planning, and Ronda Boutz, team lead of special projects with South Nation Conservation, then unveiled a joint presentation on forest cover loss, which has also been presented to the counties council and municipal councils.
Both McDonald and Boutz felt it was imperative to submit their findings to the DFA as it has a direct impact on farmers in the region and the rural way of life.
McDonald was quick to point out that the three counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry make up a truly unique landscape with each region having its own idiosyncratic features.
“It’s a really interesting mix of landscapes and that’s the reality. If you’re working at the counties you’re looking at the whole counties and what is best for everyone there,” she said.
McDonald also addressed the 30 per cent of required forest cover recommended by Environment and Climate Change Canada for the region and where that statistic comes from. The OFA openly disagrees with this.
“There is a lot of science that has gone into it and it’s based on the Great Lakes ecosystem and we’ve accepted that. The conservation authority has accepted that number and that is the number we’re using to judge the minimum number of forest cover we would like to have, ideally. That doesn’t mean every township or community, but overall as a county that is our goal,” she said adding that SD&G’s dip to 29 per cent is “cause for concern.”
One of the most startling numbers is that clearing land for agricultural use is responsible for 90 per cent of the forest cover loss.
“That is a difficult statistic to look at because there are lands in that number that are 100 per cent good farmland and there are lands that are cleared that are not necessarily good farmland,” said McDonald. She added that, “90 per cent is not a number that represents the issue, but is one of the facts on the issue.”
Another main culprit is a practice called pre-clearing. Aggregate companies or developers readying a site for a subdivision will clear cut a site before filing an application so they don’t have to go through an environmental study.
There are gaps in policy at the municipal and county levels allowing irresponsible individuals and companies to act recklessly with no fear of reprisal.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable that some people have to go through the rules and some people don’t,” said McDonald.
In an effort to address a complex issue that is spread over an incredibly diverse landscape with numerous industries and livelihoods at stake, McDonald broke down the issues and the possible solutions.
One of the most critical areas is the destruction of provincially significant wetlands, which aren’t protected by the Official Plan, conservation authorities or the Ministry of Natural Resources. Often unevaluated wetlands are cleared and drained before they can be assessed for pending applications. Another major cause for concern is the loss of riparian cover, mostly around large waterways. These are considered essential issues.
“There’s no straightforward way for any of these authorities to be able to prevent tree clearing. No one has an easy tool that they can use, so that’s a problem,” said McDonald.
The report has proposed the implementation of a site alteration bylaw at the county and municipal level, which can be assigned to specific areas rather than a blanket bylaw for an entire region.
“It would allow us to implement our Official Plan policies and protect the most significant natural features, and ensure that best management practices are being enforced,” said McDonald.
She also added that the most effective way to stop the damage immediately is to use the Municipal Act.
“I felt compelled to let council know that the Municipal Act does provide the power to enact a tree conservation bylaw. That is fundamentally the easiest way to control tree cutting. That might not be the best solution for SD&G, I totally understand that, but it is an option that is available and it is specifically given to municipalities under the Municipal Act for this type of problem,” she said.
When it comes to land use, you can argue for environmental responsibility until you are blue in the face but it all comes down to dollars and cents. A large reason why so few people feel compelled to conserve the forest is because there just aren’t any tangible incentives in place for a land owner asked to sacrifice something for the public good.
Managed forestry tax incentive program (MFTIP), which offers a 75 per cent reduction in taxes on forested land, only has seven to nine per cent of those who are eligible enrolled. A cumbersome process and government interference are major deterrents.
MPAC also offers a zero assessment for every 20 acres of forest for every hundred acres of farmland, but their records are grossly outdated. Some are printed in pencil on paper cards that were written more than 20 years ago.
This presents a two-sided problem. If someone has clear cut 100 acres of trees, they aren’t being taxed on what is now agricultural land. The reverse is also true. If a land has become forested, the landowner may still be getting taxed unfairly.
“In a way, if you think about it, you’re incentivizing clear cutting by not taxing people appropriately,” said McDonald.
The Agriculture Forest Cover Committee (AFCC), which helped form the forest cover report, identified the top priorities as education and outreach for the ag community. Using the woodlot advisory service to start making money with timber harvests, cutting firewood and to make woodlots more marketable was a key starting point.
In response to a DFA member question about why farmers should be expected to plant 30 per cent of their land into trees, Boutz clarified the issue.
“The 30 per cent that is referenced on the work that we’ve done is on a watershed basis. So it’s not that every parcel of land has to have 30 per cent. It’s a landscape approach. We’re not here to say to plant prime ag land back into trees. We know that’s not realistic. It’s an economic driver and that’s not what we’re suggesting. What we are suggesting is that perhaps there are areas on your farm, riparian or windbreaks, that warrant keeping,” she said.
Boutz added that municipalities should do their share and pay attention to the urban landscapes and roadsides as well.
“There are opportunities there as well and you have the added benefit of having more tree canopy added onto the landscape,” she said.
South Dundas mayoral candidate Steven Byvelds was one of the few candidates in attendance that actively participated. He suggested that the soil mapping of the area be updated to reduce the potential for lower class or marginal land being cleared for farmland.
“If farmers knew beforehand that maybe they should be doing more investigating instead of just bringing in the machinery and being done with it. Finding out it wasn’t the best plan in the world when 20 years down the road they haven’t made a penny on it,” he said.
McDonald agreed saying that: “There’s a big treasure trove of data that someone needs to provide to people in a format they can access and a way they can understand so they can make decisions.”
Jan Roosendaal, a long time local farmer, didn’t think any of the numbers amounted to a whole heck of a lot.
“North Dundas is good top soil and it’s never going to have forest cover. South Stormont is a big swamp with some good land in between. Let’s call a spade a spade. Is it really that important? Is it 29 per cent or 30 per cent? Come on. What is good land is going to be farmed and what is half-assed land will be farmed for a while until eventually somebody goes broke. That is the bottom line. The Larose Forest was all farmed one day, but obviously it didn’t work so the government replanted it. That’s the way it goes. So don’t start swimming around about 14 or 15 per cent forest cover because it’s really not that important in the grand scheme of things,” he said.
McDonald adamantly disagreed and pointed out that the Emerald Ash Borer will further reduce the forest cover by another 20 to 30 per cent and impact farmers and the rural way of life. Protecting that lifestyle and livelihood shouldn’t come down to government management.
“I don’t want to see regulation. I don’t like red tape and bureaucracy. I would rather see a community that takes ownership of their rural life and rural area that says we need to keep trees in certain places and we need to farm good farmland and we decide to do that as a county because SD&G is very different from other counties. I’ve learned that from working there. We don’t have tree conservation bylaws when everyone else does because we found a way to address this 80 years ago,” she said.