Residents tout new conservation committee
HUNTSVILLE - Holding on to natural biodiversity has been labelled one of the province’s greatest challenges, but some Huntsville residents want to help.
Mary McCulley and John Brenciaglia made a presentation to the town’s planning committee in February and recommended the creation of a conservation advisory committee to monitor and protect natural heritage areas and the natural corridors that link them.
Both McCulley and Brenciaglia had volunteered with the now defunct Unity Plan implementation committee, which worked toward realizing the more than 300 recommendations of the town’s economic, cultural and environmental sustainability document. The idea for a conservation advisory committee sprung from the implementation committee.
“We took the Unity Plan goals on the basis of increased species loss worldwide. The goals that we picked were a means to protect against further species loss,” said McCulley. “That, hopefully, confers some ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change and other natural stresses.”
Climate change and biodiversity loss are already a reality, said McCulley. A report noted that fungus and invasive insects in Muskoka have put beech trees at risk. Many trees have already died, she said.
“It is yet another sign,” said McCulley.
She had stated previously that the larger the natural areas are, the more biodiverse they are. And diverse ecosystems, along with the plant and animal species in them, keep water clean, air clear and soil fertile. Without diversity, nature loses the ability to repair itself, she said.
McCulley noted that Gord Miller, environmental commissioner of Ontario, has said biodiversity will be one of the greatest challenges facing the province in modern history.
And she noted the province has been supportive of natural heritage protection as outlined in its policy statement.
“The biodiversity and connectivity of natural features in an area and the long-term ecological function and biodiversity of natural heritage systems should be maintained, restored or, where possible, improved, recognizing linkages between and among natural heritage features and areas, surface water features and ground water features,” states the Provincial Policy Statement.
McCulley and Brenciaglia did their research and spoke with the town and the Ministry of Natural Resources, then developed an outline for the conservation advisory committee.
Conservation advisory committee members would include people with knowledge of at least one area of ecosystem assessment, such as ecologists or retired Ministry of Natural Resources or Ministry of the Environment personnel from the region.
The committee would assess ecosystems, prioritize natural areas based on the level of existing protection or importance, determine the best options for connecting corridors, gather site-specific information, and map areas, along with other responsibilities.
The focus would be on ecologically significant public property and protected areas.
“There are many reasons to have concern for the environment,” said Brenciaglia. “The process of retaining natural heritage areas is very important across the province and it is, in fact, essential that we kick-start it with this particular recommendation.”
Committee membership would be voluntary and the group would work closely with the town’s director of planning and sustainability, who would provide committee oversight as well.
McCulley noted the committee may need a budget of up to $500 to cover expenses such as caps or T-shirts with committee logos, field trip costs, mileage or light refreshments.
Mayor Claude Doughty commented that the District of Muskoka has completed a species at risk assessment of the region, which he has criticized because it was done through aerial photographs, and that consultants complete detailed site assessments before any development project in the municipality.
“We see that with gravel pits and subdivisions, as examples. There’s a full analysis from one end to another of every nuance of those kinds of considerations,” said Doughty. “It’s not a prairie around here – pretty much every area has some wetland or something and those (analyses) are the baseline requirements.”
He asked how the committee would fit in with those existing services.
McCulley said the committee would use species at risk assessments and tools to identify where certain species may exist and then send members with expertise on that species to get a detailed assessment of the area at the ground level. But species at risk is not the only factor members would assess.
“Our committee members would be working on the ground in these areas and know the areas that are highly ecologically significant, which may or may not have species at risk,” she said.
The committee members’ focus on public lands would also set it apart from the private development sector consultants.
Councillors directed staff to return to a future committee meeting with a report about a potential conservation advisory committee.