On guard for the moraine

By Caroline Schultz

Formed 11, 000 years ago by retreating glaciers, and stretching 160 kilometres end to end, the Oak Ridges Moraine is one of southern Ontario’s most distinctive physical features.

Before European settlement, the moraine’s rolling hills were blanketed by forests and punctuated by kettle lakes and streams. Expanses of tallgrass prairie and savannah extended across the moraine’s eastern end. By the 1930s much of the moraine’s forest cover was gone after decades of clearing the land for farming. The moraine’s sandy soils suffered massive erosion, and silt and sand clogged its streams and creeks.

When the Federation of Ontario Naturalists was founded in 1931, one of the key conservation issues of the day was the Oak Ridges Moraine. At that time our membership spearheaded the push for a major reforestation program, the fruits of which we see in large blocks of mature woodland such as the Ganaraska Forest – where we are gathering on June 11 and 12 to celebrate our 80th anniversary. After eight decades in the conservation business, the moraine remains a priority for us.

Today the moraine is home to 300,000 people. An additional 5 million live close by in one of North America’s most populous metropolitan areas. Where once the moraine was denuded of its forests and topsoils, by the 1980s its ecological integrity was threatened by growing urban development, sand and gravel extraction by aggregate companies, and the rapidly expanding road systems to serve them.

Ontario Nature, with STORM (Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition) and other local groups, fought hard and won protection for the moraine with the passage of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act in 2001 and the regulations of the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Plan that immediately followed. Despite this victory, as you will read in Peter Gorrie’s story “Showdown on the Oak Ridges Moraine” (page 24), threats to the moraine’s aquifers and biodiversity are ongoing. So the review of the protection plan for the moraine in 2015 will be a pivotal point in the moraine’s history. Provided that the political will exists, the review is an opportunity to close loopholes and address shortcomings in the protection plan.

Insiders report that stakeholders, such as aggregate operators, who stand to gain from opening up the moraine to more development and resource extraction, are already working on their strategies to challenge the existing protection the moraine receives. The conservation community needs to be prepared to battle back. This is familiar terrain for us. In 1999, Ontario Nature and other nongovernmental organizations released an action plan to protect the moraine. The following year, 465 scientists signed an Ontario Nature-STORM protection statement for this significant landscape. Next, we delivered 3,000 postcards to Queen’s Park demanding conservation for the moraine. A decade ago, all that action paid off.

Now, the Oak Ridges Moraine Foundation has taken a key step by overseeing an assessment of the moraine’s ecological health and the effectiveness of the plan in protecting the moraine’s ecological integrity. We need this reporting to put forward an informed and compelling message.

Ontario Nature’s membership worked hard to restore and protect the Oak Ridges Moraine. We are ready to do it again.

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