Thank you very much.
My name is Kim Barrett, and I've been the senior terrestrial ecologist with Conservation Halton for the past 10 years. Before that I was a species at risk biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
Conservation Halton is one of 36 conservation authorities across Ontario. We're community-based local agencies that deliver services and programs that protect and manage natural resources in partnership with government, landowners, and other organizations.
Conservation authorities are unique to Ontario. We promote an integrated watershed approach, balancing human, environmental, and economic needs, and we're organized on a watershed basis.
In response to your specific questions, the first was about what types of stakeholders are involved in habitat conservation Ultimately the stakeholders involved in habitat conservation are landowners—the individuals, organizations, and corporations that actually own the land. Although their actions may be guided and supported by various intermediaries, it's very difficult to force anyone to improve habitat quality or quantity if they don't want to.
Those intermediaries are fortunately quite diverse and abundant, from the national organizations all the way down to local naturalist clubs and neighbourhood associations.
Conservation authorities across Ontario contribute quite substantially to habitat conservation in a number of ways. First, we collectively own, monitor, and manage about 146,000 hectares of land that provides habitat for many species. Second, we have stewardship programs that provide information and support to landowners and guide them through restoration activities on their properties. Third, we provide outdoor educational programming for almost half a million children each year.
Just a few other examples: many conservation authorities have agreements with our member municipalities to provide technical review planning applications with respect to impacts on natural heritage features and functions. We have staff sitting on species at risk recovery teams and conducting research. Because our mandate spans both aquatic and terrestrial systems, we have a holistic ecosystem-based approach to habitat conservation that few other agencies have.
Although the jurisdiction of conservation authorities covers only about 10% of Ontario's land base, this area contains more than 90% of Ontario's population, so I would contend that our contribution to habitat conservation in this challenging landscape is considerably greater than our geographic reach.
Your next question was related to the availability, sources, and dissemination of publicly available knowledge and expertise on habitat conservation. There are many groups with expertise on habitat conservation that have resources available, mainly online. For example, the Ontario Invasive Plant Council has published guidelines for the control of a number of invasive plant species.
Species at risk recovery strategies and recovery action plans, where they exist, provide direction and measures to improve habitat conditions for targeted species.
Many local environmental organizations, like conservation authorities and Carolinian Canada Coalition, offer workshops to local landowners, offering advice on different aspects of habitat conservation.
Much of the information that's directly applied to on-the-ground conservation efforts is spread by word of mouth on the basis of the direct experiences of others. Lifelong naturalists are keen observers and often provide a wealth of information that surpasses any published study in terms of relevance and practical application.
There is a gap between the primary literature and the applied practice of habitat conservation—and the transfer of this information is often delayed. Most conservation organizations don't have the resources required to access the primary literature, and in reality the primary literature may not provide the answers people are seeking. It's very difficult and expensive to conduct research on habitat conservation on a landscape scale and over a timeframe that's ecologically relevant, particularly with respect to long-lived species such as turtles and some birds.
Ecosystem-scale, long-term research such as that formally conducted in the Experimental Lakes Area is an appropriate void for federal scientists to fill.
In my brief I discussed an Environment Canada report entitled, How Much Habitat is Enough? One additional initiative I'd like to briefly mention is the Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network, or EMAN, which Environment Canada coordinated from 1994 to 2010. This program played a key role in coordinating environmental monitoring efforts across Canada, and facilitated data sharing through the use of standardized protocols and citizen science monitoring. The loss of funding to this program is unfortunate because it's difficult to make decisions about the effectiveness of habitat conservation without monitoring the results of our efforts.
You asked about the most effective habitat conservation groups and the actions they take. The most effective habitat conservation groups are those with broad-based community support, and those that consult widely with affected parties to leverage support from multiple sources.
As a local example, the Cootes to Escarpment Park System in Hamilton and Burlington is a collaboration among 10 government and non-government organizations whose goal is to protect, restore, and connect more than 2,000 hectares of natural lands at the western end of Lake Ontario. This initiative was formed to coordinate management activities on a number of protected areas owned and managed by different organizations, including Conservation Halton, Hamilton Conservation Authority, Royal Botanical Gardens, and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. The area is a biodiversity hot spot with almost one-quarter of Canada's native flora and 50 species at risk. The eco-park system will provide a coordinated network of habitats for both people and wildlife.
The Hamilton Naturalists' Club, another partner in the Cootes to Escarpment Park System, has been a model for habitat conservation efforts since its inception in 1919. The club became the first volunteer organization in Ontario to purchase significant areas as nature sanctuaries in 1962. It now has five sanctuaries of over 300 acres and the support of over 500 very dedicated members.
Your fourth question is related to the definition of conserved land. Typically, conserved land is synonymous with lands that are owned by a public agency or non-government organization with a mandate for conservation, because private landholdings are subject to alteration. The use of conservation easements can be effective, but it's very dependent on having the right landowner for the right property. Easements don't provide the same flexibility as outright ownership of the property, and this may come into play as the status of various species guilds changes over time.
There was a time not very long ago when meadows and grasslands were considered underperforming areas in need of tree planting to maximize their ecological benefits. However, with the recent decline of grasslands species such as the bobolink and eastern meadowlark and a greater appreciation of the importance of the so-called lesser taxa such as butterflies and dragonflies, the best use of some of our conserved areas has shifted.
In Ontario, the concept of habitat banking seems to be emerging as a practical option to support species-at-risk conservation. This is a market-based system whereby someone proposing to remove habitat buys credits from a bank, which in turn restores habitat elsewhere. Its strength is that it provides certainty to the development community while facilitating opportunities to strengthen and support significant core habitats that have a higher probability of retaining their long-term conservation values.
You asked how best management practices and stewardship compare to prescriptive, government-mandated measures. In my opinion, they work together. Most on-the-ground work is accomplished through local stewardship efforts, but these are often facilitated by government-mandated measures and programs, especially when those programs include financial assistance.
For example, both the federal and provincial governments have funding programs for species at risk that provide much needed support for habitat conservation efforts. Best management practices are good, but they're not usually enough to stop the decline of species at risk that are impacted by habitat factors. You need prescriptive, government-mandated measures to go over and above the status quo and actually recover species at risk. For example, the determination of an overall benefit to the species is an integral part of the permitting process under paragraph 17(2)(c) of the Ontario Endangered Species Act.
There are always loopholes and gaps in environmental legislation that can be circumvented with a good lawyer and a lot of money, but if you have a landowner who's committed to conservation, they will do the right thing regardless of what the law requires of them.
Finally, you asked how the federal government can improve habitat conservation efforts in Canada. My first suggestion is to buy more land and set it aside for conservation. They're not making any more of it, and the elephant in the room is population growth, especially in the greater Toronto area. Habitat loss and degradation is by far the leading cause of the endangerment of species at risk. If you look at a map of the highest concentration of species at risk, it overlaps with the most densely populated area in the country, which probably has the smallest representation of national parks. Conservation of particular species and habitats may or may not be compatible with other uses of the land, and informed zoning with ongoing monitoring of protected areas is critical to ensuring that management objectives are achieved.
My second recommendation is to explore the strategic use of habitat banking to fund restoration projects and provide financial support to local stakeholders who are already actively engaged in habitat protection and restoration. The reality is that habitat conservation, particularly in a landscape characterized by relatively small individual private landholdings has to be done at the local level, one landowner at a time. We sometimes encounter landowner fatigue with all the different groups out there representing slightly different interests. To gain the confidence of these landowners, it's imperative that conservation practitioners at all levels collaborate to present a coordinated message.
My final recommendation is to improve science communication to the public so that it is transparent and understandable, and to promote habitat conservation in the mainstream media. Making the link between the environment and the economy is absolutely critical; each one is dependent on the other. There have been significant efforts in Ontario and elsewhere to quantify the true value of ecological goods and services, both to the economy and society as a whole. A full-on cultural shift is necessary to understand and accept the connection of our own well-being to that of the natural world around us.
I'll close with a quote from the Senegalese poet and naturalist, Baba Dioum, who said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught”.