Wetland designation debate continues

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Property owners all over the Ottawa area are concerned about what new wetland designations mean for the value and use of their land. Merrickville-Wolford landowners, Paul Matteau and John Miner, approached council in January to ask them to help hold the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) accountable for designating part of their land as provincially significant wetlands. Council responded by sending a letter to the MRNF, asking them to justify their decision to apply the designation to 600 acres of land in Merrickville-Wolford. “We know we have to accept, under the Planning Act, what is provided in terms of wetlands designations; but we are not happy with it, and we want a justification and a process to move forward to have that addressed,” Mayor Doug Struthers said at the meeting in January.

Since then, there have been several people who have contacted the Times to share their thoughts on the issue. Merrickville resident, Robbie Giles, wrote an open letter to mayor and council, expressing his concern that council hadn’t done their due diligence before supporting the landowners. “Council and committees, supported by staff, need to constantly recognize the seriousness and sensitivity of topics such as wetlands, private property and development and the natural environment,” he wrote.

In response to this letter, John Miner wrote to the NG Times, explaining that many property owners across Ontario are good forest managers and lovers of nature. His issue is that the MNRF has not provided sufficient evidence to support their decision that the land in question is actually a wetland. If landowners want the decision reversed, they have to hire their own evaluator and present their findings to the MNRF for review.

“We rural landowners would like to be treated like any other property owner, who is dealt with in a fair manner,’ he wrote.

Ottawa-based environmental advocate, Ken Mcrae, has been fighting for the protection of wetland in Ottawa for the past 30 years. He says wetlands have many important environmental attributes. They act as carbon sinks and provide a habitat for many types of wildlife, including many species at risk. Wetlands also have a flood control function. “If it wasn’t for the presence of wetland acting as flood planes, there would be a lot more flooding,” Ken says.

Ken has heard property owners argue against a provincially significant wetland designation many times, particularly in the Goulburn Wetland Complex in West Ottawa. In 2004, the MNRF found that an additional 20 wetlands in the area should be designated provincially significant, which involved about 60 landowners in the area. The vast majority of them objected, saying that the lands weren’t wetlands and hired evaluators to reassess their properties. “Several of them hired bulldozers and destroyed the wetland, “Ken says. “The designation changed and the MNRF withdrew.”

He believes there are a lot more wetlands that need to be designated in order to protect them. “I have been at this for many years,” he says. “It has been a long uphill battle getting wetlands properly classified and designated.”

The MNRF evaluates land based on certain criteria in order to designate a property as provincially significant wetland. One of the main criteria is that it must contain at least 50 per cent wetland plant species. The MNRF has confirmed that documented species observations, mapping, and aerial photography are all used to make the designation. “Site visits allow the evaluator to verify whether existing information is accurate, to record new field observations, and to adjust preliminary mapped boundary,” a representative from the MNRF wrote in an email to the NG Times.

However, the property owners in Merrickville-Wolford say that no one from the MNRF ever came to their property to do a site visit before making the designation, instead relying on air photos, which could be years old. Local biologist, Fred Schueler, who has worked with the MNRF for many years, says he is not surprised. In his experience, people who work at the MNRF are told to stay in the office as much as possible, as they don’t have the budget for fieldwork.

The MNRF is transparent about their protocol when it comes to designating provincially significant wetlands; but it is unclear whether they actually follow it. Wetland needs to be protected; but so do property owners from having their land designated as provincially significant wetland if it is not actually the case. There is a delicate balance here between protecting the natural environment while also respecting landowner’s rights to their own property. Landowners need to be responsible in protecting important wetlands; but the MNRF also needs to do their due diligence to make sure that the provincially significant wetlands designation is used appropriately and doesn’t cause undue stress for property owners.

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