The moraine was created 11,000 years ago when the last of a series of glaciers retreated northward after covering Ontario in ice up to two kilometres thick. As the massive ice sheets melted, they left behind sand and gravel scoured from the land during their advance. The debris piled up 150 metres deep between two lobes of the glacier, giving the moraine its shape and height.

Over the centuries, the hills acquired a mantle of soil and vegetation that created habitat for all the species that now reside there. Native people hunted caribou on the moraine and caught fish in its cold, clear waters. European settlers chopped millions of trees to clear land for farming; then, millions more were planted when the exposed thin soil began to blow away.

In the latter years of the last century, the moraine’s combination of scenic beauty and relatively low land prices attracted developers, who built subdivisions with little regard for environmental values, and were making plans for thousands more homes. Those plans, in turn, impelled nature lovers to demand a halt to the urbanization of what they viewed as an irreplaceable ecological resource.

They made some progress: the previous provincial government under Premier Bob Rae prepared a protection strategy, and the three regional governments – Peel, York and Durham – that contained moraine land were working on development restrictions. Still, at the century’s turn, years of advocacy for conservation appeared to come to nothing. Most of the municipalities on the moraine welcomed developers and the tax base they would create and, after taking office in 1995, the Conservative government quickly scrapped the NDP strategy and rejected calls for any other measures. Tony Clement, who at the time held two moraine-related cabinet posts, environment and municipal affairs, assured the Toronto Star, “We have something in place that is workable if applied properly. It can provide a balance.”

But just days after Clement made that statement, things shifted. On February 23, 2000, more than 1,500 angry people packed a meeting of the town council in Richmond Hill, one of the largest communities on the moraine and usually a politically placid place, to oppose plan amendments that would permit construction of some 11,000 homes. The raucous gathering shook the politicians’ complacency, and sent a message that implied electoral danger in supporting continued urban sprawl on what was clearly a treasured landscape. “It was a pivotal point,” says Gregor Beck, who engaged in the moraine battle as director of conservation for what was then the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature). “It became, ‘This is the line on sprawl. This is it. People are fed up.’”

Public pressure grew until, in May 2001, Natural Resources Minister Chris Hodgson announced a six-month freeze on new development while a preservation plan was devised. Before year’s end, the Legislature approved the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act, declaring the government’s intention to preserve most of the moraine. A protection plan, adopted the following spring, gave substance to the declaration.

The plan divided the moraine into four categories, with different rules for each. The most stringent protection applies to natural core areas, which are off limits to development – with the significant exception of roads, electricity transmission lines, water and sewer pipes, and other infrastructure. Linkage zones are intended to create natural corridors between the core areas. These zones are open to the activities allowed in the core areas, as well as to the mining of sand and gravel, resources in great demand in the fast-growing Greater Toronto Area. Zones designated as countryside permit those uses as well, but are dominated by farmland, golf courses, estate subdivisions and rural hamlets. Settlement areas – about 8 percent of the moraine land – are where development is to be concentrated.

To win the business community’s support, the provincial government gave developers land outside the moraine in exchange for some of the controversial Richmond Hill property. After the plan was approved, the government also green-lighted major subdivision projects that had already been approved in Richmond Hill and other areas, where, according to the new protection rules, they should not go.

Despite the compromises, the plan “probably exceeded expectations,” says Beck, now a conservation and science director with the Long Point Basin Land Trust, on the north shore of Lake Erie. Debbe Crandall, who heads Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, or STORM, a coalition of advocacy groups formed in 1989, agrees that the measures have been “quite effective” in meeting their primary objective of restraining development. “The broad policy is quite successful … Urban boundaries are holding. The number of severances and new lot creations is in line with the fact that a number were already in the works.”

Beyond that main goal, however, results are mixed.

Because the regulations neither require nor support the acquisition of conservation land or measures such as reforestation and stream rehabilitation to enhance natural habitats, those activities have been piecemeal and limited. Still, by easing development pressure, the plan has made them easier, says Robert Keen, executive director of Trees Ontario, which, with various partners, has provided technical and financial support for planting trees on privately owned moraine lands since 2005. Property owners are more willing to invest effort and resources on land that appears unlikely to be bulldozed, he says.

Nevertheless, moraine advocates say the plan needs targets and funding for acquisition and restoration. They also complain that the provincial government has not kept a promise to monitor the plan’s impact. “We need a detailed assessment of the plan … before we can talk about revisions,” says Kim Gavine, who heads the Oak Ridges Moraine Foundation, a nonprofit agency that has leveraged an eight-year, $15-million provincial grant into a campaign that raised more than twice that amount from corporate and private sponsors to buy and restore land, establish education programs and create a moraine-long hiking trail. In the absence of government monitoring, the foundation has funded the most thorough assessment in existence, contained in a series of eight reports released in March under the Measuring Success on the Oak Ridges Moraine Project. “We’ve set out the … work that the Province was supposed to do but didn’t,” Gavine says.

Much of the report was compiled by the Conservation Authorities Moraine Coalition, which includes all nine authorities with properties on the moraine. “We’re trying to show the Province, ‘This is the best we can do with the resources and data we’ve got. But we need you to help,’” says Burnett of the TRCA.

Perhaps the most critical concerns today are the many sand and gravel pits on the moraine, as well as the proliferation of infrastructure projects. Pits eliminate surface vegetation and soils, and disturb the underground water. They are controversial throughout southern Ontario and were a major source of contention in the moraine plan. The public wanted strong protection, but “the reality was also trying to make sure you can get a deal,” Beck recalls. Additionally, it was necessary to look beyond the moraine, he says. “If we had said, ‘No sand and gravel pits on the moraine altogether,’ the pits would have been displaced to other areas that are as or more environmentally sensitive.”

Today, operators are required to restore the pits to a natural state when they are closed, but, says Schultz, more stringent rules are needed to ensure the results mesh well with neighbouring areas, particularly when the properties adjoin core zones. Ontario Nature is working with other organizations to determine whether the plan can be altered to give communities more control over the locations where aggregate extraction is permitted. “The work we’re doing will determine whether the rules need to be tightened,” she says, but she is concerned that in the 2015 review, those rules may instead be relaxed.

Infrastructure projects are the other big worry. They can occur in core and linkage areas as long as their proponents can show that the infrastructure is needed and no reasonable alternative exists. “The world of infrastructure bounds along at its own pace and nothing stops it,” complains Crandall of STORM. “Everything gets through that filter.” The projects, particularly roads, fragment habitat, threatening its survival and the well-being of the species that use it, says Schultz. “It’s a huge problem.”