A clean slate for land use planning in the North

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In 2007, the ECO undertook an extensive analysis of the environmental implications of various land use policies and allocation decisions in Ontario’s northern boreal landscape. The following articles are included:

Ontario’s far North provides a rare opportunity. A clean slate exists for the provincial government to develop a strong, ecologically sound, landscape-level planning approach. A new planning system developed by a thorough planning process, which includes broad consultation from the outset, will not only result in ecological benefits, but will also help to ensure greater public acceptance. It will provide greater predictability for all concerned.

The ECO urges the province to create a comprehensive land use strategy for the north. The underpinnings of this northern comprehensive land use strategy should include a dramatic expansion of the protected areas network. Currently, protected areas only cover 7.7 per cent of the northernmost 400,000 km2 of Ontario, north of the AOU, and three-quarters of this total area is found in just one provincial park. The creation of new provincial parks and conservation reserves would serve a crucial role in taking a precautionary approach to protecting biodiversity.

The expansion of the protected areas network would be a bold vision to protect the ecological integrity of northern Ontario. It is critically important that protected areas be established that are of a sufficient size to maintain northern species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Numerous independent scientific studies have concluded that a network of protected areas, including some areas that are at a minimum 9,000 to 13,000 km2, are necessary in order to have a minimal prospect of maintaining viable populations of wildlife. The current extent of protected areas is insufficient to meet this challenge.

Ontario needs a land use management system to guide important zoning decisions in the north. The importance and range of issues dealt with under such a system necessitates that its administration not be delegated to one ministry alone, but that all relevant branches of government embrace responsibility. This new approach not only requires comprehensive planning and assessments of individual projects, but also must address the cumulative impacts of development. The new land use planning system should also have the force of law.

At present, the only tool available to the province to govern land use planning of Crown land is the Public Lands Act. Unfortunately, the Public Lands Act provides very little legislative authority or guidance for land use planning. The Act does not reflect modern principles of resource management, nor was it designed to address current environmental realities. Indeed, this law has remained relatively unchanged since it was introduced in 1913. There have been a number of minor revisions over the years with the result that the Public Lands Act is a disjointed piece of legislation with no clear overall direction. Simply put, the Act does not reflect MNR’s current mandate to conserve biodiversity and to manage natural resources in a sustainable manner.

Under the current legislative regime, there are no requirements for land use plans to be developed, and, if developed, they have no legal authority. Accordingly, the Ontario government’s efforts at land use planning in the far North, such as the Northern Boreal Initiative, are seriously hampered by the absence of appropriate planning tools.

The ECO believes that the Public Lands Act needs to be reformed so that the Ontario government will be able to properly manage provincial Crown lands. New Crown land management legislation should provide legislative requirements, as well as legal authority for land use plans on Crown land. In addition, the new legislation should identify provincial interests, set out detailed planning requirements, and provide protection for ecological values. Such a planning system should take precedence over laws that govern other disparate land uses, such as those for forestry and mining.

The ECO envisions a new legislative regime that provides ministries with the necessary regulatory tools to make wise land use decisions, guided by public scrutiny and a precautionary approach to environmental protection. A similar recommendation was made in 1998 to the Ontario government by the citizen roundtables during consultation over Ontario’s Living Legacy, but it was never fully implemented by the government.

Similarly, the province’s regulatory regime governing mineral development is in need of substantive reform. Ontario’s century-old mining system treats mineral development as the pre-eminent use of land. It must be reformed to reflect contemporary land use priorities and environmental values.

The Ontario government needs to address the failure of the Mining Act and its associated legal mechanisms; the various existing approvals processes are highly compartmentalized and, generally, there is no assessment of the overall impacts of an entire mineral development project, including the cumulative ecological impacts. The ECO believes that the regulatory structure for mining development must be reformed to ensure that all impacts of a mining project, including the cumulative impacts, are adequately assessed prior to any mineral development.

Ontario has a rare opportunity to develop a strong, ecologically sound, landscape-level planning approach. A precautionary approach to decision-making and planning for northern Ontario must be embraced to ensure a sustainable future. This new approach is not only warranted on ecological grounds, but is also necessary to ensure the social well-being and economic security of northern communities.

Recommendation 6:

The ECO recommends that MNR reform the Public Lands Act to create a planning system that provides MNR with the tools to better protect ecological values on all Crown lands.

This is an article from the 2006/07 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2007. "Developing Priorities: The Challenge of Creating a Sustainable Planning System in Northern Ontario." Reconciling our Priorities, ECO Annual Report, 2006-07. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 73-74.

<metadesc>Ontario’s far North provides a clean slate for the provincial government to develop a strong, ecologically sound, landscape-level planning approach.</metadesc>