by Andrea Smith
Not far from Ottawa’s city limits I’m suddenly immersed in a landscape more typical of the subarctic or arctic regions of northern Canada. I’ve come to Mer Bleue Bog, a stunning example of boreal peatland named for its resemblance in foggy weather to a large blue sea. The 3,700-hectare sphagnum bog is among the largest in southern Ontario and has been designated an internationally significant wetland under the United Nations’ Ramsar Convention.
The magic touch
Larry Cornelis vividly remembers a childhood spent exploring the wetland next to the family farm outside Wallaceburg, Ontario, seeing his first egret and finding a marsh wren’s nest. Now vice-president of the Sydenham Field Naturalists and past president of Lambton Wildlife Inc., both Ontario Nature member groups, Cornelis has done much to protect wetlands across Ontario. But his many accomplishments pale in comparison to his latest trick: conjuring a wetland out of farmland.
The long-time Ontario Nature member recently completed the restoration of Bossu Wetland, a six-hectare tract of fallow cropland located a few kilometres north of Wallaceburg along the north branch of the Sydenham River. Named for Cornelis’s maternal grandfather, who bought the property in the 1940s, what only two years ago was a ploughed, planted and fertilizer-drenched tract of farmland is now enlivened by a chorus of American toads, greater yellowlegs and black-bellied plovers.
A landscaper by day, Cornelis was less worried about the intricacies of the construction of the wetland than the acts of persuasion he would need to perform beforehand. “This was an active farm, so I was, admittedly, a little apprehensive about asking the family to take this land out of crop production and return it to nature.” Once family members gave him the green light, Cornelis, with a team guided by Darrell Randall of Ducks Unlimited Canada, created four ponds and a channel that winds from the largest of the ponds through the low-lying floodplain. By November 2005, a viable wetland was in place and by spring, the flourishing ecosystem was attracting ducks by the hundreds, along with dunlin and even a rare snowy egret. Green shoots poked through the ponds in June. After 100 years of active farming, the dormant seeds of a diverse wetland had sprouted almost overnight. “The success of the wetland restoration project surpassed my wildest expectations,” says Cornelis. “I didn’t have to reintroduce a single plant.”
The land surrounding the Bossu family farm is an ecological wonder. Next to the wetland is more than a hectare of fully restored woodland – which contains 5,000 newly planted trees and shrubs including sycamore, pawpaw and common hackberry – and another hectare of rare tallgrass prairie that Cornelis introduced.
Cornelis’s next challenge is to obtain approval for the proposed restoration of a 400-hectare wetland along the shores of Lake St. Clair. The Eastern Habitat Joint Venture – a conservation partnership the six easternmost provinces founded in 1989 – has identified the lake as one of Ontario’s top priorities for migratory waterfowl habitat conservation. Plans to proceed with the project have stalled, but Cornelis has yet to admit defeat. “I’m still hopeful. This is something I’ve been involved with since the preliminary stages, so I know how important and valuable it would be.”
If you are interested in taking a spring tour of the Bossu Wetland, contact Larry Cornelis at email@example.com or 519-627-8785.
Mer Bleue forms part of the National Capital Commission’s Greenbelt system and contains a 1.2-kilometre boardwalk built to accommodate curious visitors like me. My family and I begin our explorations by crossing over a marshy area, filled with cattails, alders, willows and sedges. As we enter the bog proper, the familiar marsh habitat is soon replaced by a vast expanse of heath vegetation and stunted black spruce and tamarack forest. My four-year-old son thrills at the idea that this peat-covered wetland is as acidic as vinegar and home to mysteriously named plants such as heart-leaved tearthumb, prostrate sedge and sticky everlasting.
Like other bogs, Mer Bleue is characterized by poor drainage, leading to a high water table, low pH and a general lack of nutrients. These features, combined with the thick layer of sphagnum moss that insulates the bog from sun, makes Mer Bleue a particularly difficult place for species to thrive. Many of its plant species, such as Labrador tea, leatherleaf and larch, are thus more typical of boreal or tundra environments and are rare in this part of the province. Mer Bleue is also home to a variety of animals, including beaver, muskrat, mink and the rare Fletcher’s dragonfly.
Wetlands, which include bogs, fens, marshes and swamps, are Ontario’s most diverse and productive ecosystems. They provide habitat for many types of plants and animals, including many species at risk such as bald eagle, Fowler’s toad, massasauga rattlesnake, orange-spotted sunfish, American ginseng and prairie-fringed orchid. Wetlands also perform key ecological functions, such as purifying and storing water and protecting terrestrial habitat from storm damage, flooding and erosion. As well, wetlands are popular destinations for bird watchers, photographers, canoeists, hunters and anglers seeking recreational opportunities.
Yet despite their importance, at least 70 percent of wetlands in southern Ontario have disappeared in the last 200 years, largely drained for agriculture or filled for development. Many of those that remain have been severely degraded by pollution, invasive species and artificial modification of water levels. No specific wetland legislation exists at either the federal or provincial level, although provincially significant wetlands do receive protection under the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) in Ontario. Under the PPS, development is prohibited in provincially (but not locally or regionally) significant wetlands south and east of the Canadian Shield, but can occur in significant wetlands on the shield as long as it has no negative impacts on wetland features or their ecological functions. Furthermore, any development adjacent to significant wetlands anywhere in Ontario must not cause negative impacts.
Nevertheless, “there’s still development occurring in wetlands despite the PPS,” says Natalie Helferty, director of conservation policy at Ontario Nature. “We’re seeing a lapse in the upholding of the PPS in practice. We’ve lost almost all wetlands in southern Ontario, so everything in my mind is significant to protect from a watershed management perspective,” Helferty argues. “If you keep degrading the quality of the wetlands, then nothing will be significant enough to protect.”
Climate change, combined with rising development pressures, is projected to increase the strain on wetlands even further. Potential effects on wetlands could include loss of breeding habitat for amphibians and waterfowl, a decline in flood-control capacity and increased erosion. “The province needs to take climate change impacts very, very seriously,” says Helferty. “The importance of wetlands is clearly overlooked by the province in its legislation and regulations so far.”
Back at Mer Bleue, we’re now in the midst of the open heath, surrounded by whimsically white-tufted cottongrass and fragrant Labrador tea. It’s hard to imagine such an impressive wetland disappearing, and thanks to the foresight of the Canadian government 50 years ago, this bog at least is protected. But Mer Bleue is by no means immune to threats to its ecological integrity. The exotic plant species purple loosestrife, glossy buckthorn and European frog-bit have already invaded the marshes of Mer Bleue, and people often dump used tires, refrigerators, building and construction waste and, occasionally, cars in the area. In addition, various adjacent land uses affect the quality and quantity of the wetland, including urban development, road building, drainage practices, farming and landfills.
Policies fail to protect
Despite the protective measures in place through a Provincial Policy Statement declaring that “no negative impacts” are allowed in or even adjacent to significant wetlands, wetland habitats in Ontario are still disappearing.
Part of the problem, as outlined in a 2007 report issued by the Environmental Commissioner’s Office (ECO), is that wetland policies are badly in need of review. More importantly, however, wetlands are imperilled because existing policies are not implemented, and because many wetlands are not evaluated as such and therefore are not designated as provincially “significant.” Without the designation, protection is not forthcoming.
The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has yet to identify and evaluate many wetlands, largely due to a lack of capacity. Consequently, some conservation authorities (CAs), and even private citizens, who, in many cases, are members of Ontario Nature member groups, have taken on the task of wetland identification. But getting MNR to recognize a wetland as provincially significant can take so long that the area is often lost to development before a designation has been assigned.
In many instances, consultants undertake the planning for a subdivision or road, leaving the evaluation process to the discretion of the landowner. If wetland habitat has been ploughed under, or if a wetland has been so degraded that it cannot be defined as provincially significant, nothing is left for the consultant to evaluate. Moreover, municipalities often possess only cursory knowledge about the natural heritage features contained within their borders and are thus unable to comment accurately on a development application or put a map in the official plan for the municipality. And official plans provide the guidelines for municipal planners and the Ontario Municipal Board for decision-making.
CAs, in turn, have the authority to regulate development and interference with wetlands, yet precious little inventory work has been conducted. According to the ECO, the CAs in eastern Ontario “made a policy decision that only wetlands designated as provincially significant and appearing on approved Official Plan schedules are subject to the regulation.” The City of Ottawa recently halted its process to designate 20 newly-identified provincially significant wetlands in its Official Plan and is planning to drain some of the areas because of landowner opposition to the designation.
Development, roads, big sewage pipes, and aggregate, agriculture and mining operations all seem to be tromping through wetlands in Ontario. Adjacent construction also fills these vulnerable ecosystems with polluted sediment or drains them. If responsible planning for wetlands is not happening through policies alone, then maybe the time has come to look at a new regulatory framework in Ontario for these irreplaceable habitats.
How we save wetlands
Some of the best examples of conservation in action can be found in Ontario Nature’s land acquisitions through its nature reserves. The 43-hectare Lost Bay Nature Reserve is one of Ontario Nature’s most recent additions to a reserve system that supports a variety of wetland types as part of the organization’s ongoing efforts to protect sensitive wetland habitats across the province. Lost Bay, located in the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands, contains provincially significant wetlands and is replete with sensitive species such as wood ducks and red-shouldered hawks. Likewise, the H.N. Crossley Nature Reserve and Malcolm Kirk Nature Reserve protect bog and fen complexes, while the Stewartville Swamp and Harold Mitchell nature reserves encompass swamp forests. A spectacular example of Great Lakes coastal meadow marsh, a globally imperiled ecosystem, is protected in the Petrel Point Nature Reserve. Numerous at-risk species flourish in these reserves, including eastern ribbonsnake, dwarf lake iris and tuberous Indian-plantain.
Ontario Nature has been at the forefront in the battle to protect wetlands in Ontario for decades. As far back as 1937, the organization, then known as Federation of Ontario Naturalists, documented the decline in wetlands across southern Ontario. In 1959, C.H.D. Clarke, honorary president of the organization at the time, vigorously promoted the ecological importance of the thousands of small wetlands scattered across the province that were threatened by the housing and agricultural demands of a booming population. In 1979, Ontario Nature launched a wetlands conservation campaign. At the time, no single agency was specifically charged with the responsibility of protecting wetlands and, in some cases, government policies actually subsidized the destruction of the endangered ecosystems. Through a newly formed wetlands committee, Ontario Nature set out to implement a series of initiatives in an attempt to protect southern Ontario’s wetlands. Appeals were made to the Ontario government to formulate a wetlands policy and raise awareness about the importance of wetland habitat. The committee also requested that provincial subsidies encouraging the destruction of wetlands be eliminated. More than a decade of intense campaigning resulted in Ontario’s Wetlands Policy, which sought the identification and protection of this vulnerable habitat.
Ontario Nature’s efforts to conserve fragile ecosystems extended to the understudied and vulnerable world of alvars – 85 percent of North America’s alvars are located in Ontario. In 1994, a partnership between U.S. and Canadian conservation groups (including Ontario Nature) resulted in the International Alvar Conservation Initiative, aimed at providing a unified and consistent approach to the conservation of the rare alvar ecosystems of the Great Lakes area. Ontario Nature furthered its efforts to protect alvars by acquiring sensitive alvar habitats via its nature reserve system, and participated in purchasing a portion of the alvar-rich south shore of Manitoulin Island. As part of this acquisition, Quarry Bay, home to some of the best alvar sites remaining in the world, became Ontario Nature’s 18th nature reserve.
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