By Joshua Wise

Ontario Nature, working in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Ducks Unlimited Canada and Earthroots, are publishing two reports, one focused on the level of protection afforded fragile wetlands in the Greenbelt, the other on the rich diversity of species and ecosystems within the Greenbelt.

The 728,434-hectare Greenbelt surrounding the most populous region in the country supports more than one-third of Ontario’s species at risk and serves as a refuge to many more plants and animals. Our organizations viewed the timing of these reports as critical to raising awareness among decision makers of the importance of the Greenbelt and how its conservation policies can be strengthened, given the upcoming provincial election and reviews of the Greenbelt Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Niagara Escarpment Plan, all slated for 2015.

The ecological importance of wetlands cannot be overstated. These delicate ecosystems are critical to water filtration, flood retention, erosion control, carbon storage, nutrient cycling and groundwater recharge, and provide habitat for specialized wildlife communities. Wetlands also support a landscape that is resilient to some of the anticipated impacts of climate change, including drought, extreme weather and the loss of biodiversity.

The Greenbelt wetlands report, which examines the effectiveness of existing legislation and polices under the Greenbelt Act, is the culmination of a two-year investigation incorporating policy analysis, surveys and case studies. The biodiversity report, focused on the rich web of life along the edge of Canada’s largest metropolis, highlights the status of the plants, animals and habitats that define the region, the benefits they provide, the ongoing threats to their persistence and the conservation gains won through progressive land-use policy.

Both reports indicate that Greenbelt policies help protect natural heritage. Nevertheless, wetlands and other habitats in the Greenbelt are still in danger of being degraded by certain land uses, such as aggregate extraction and infrastructure development. Both reports emphasize the urgent need for education, outreach and support for stewardship initiatives, in addition to policy reform. Landowners, developers and residents all need to understand the natural values of the Greenbelt and how they can best be conserved.

People and wildlife alike are drawn to the rich habitats that make the Greenbelt such a special place. When the landscape of the Greenbelt is altered, everyone living downstream feels the impact. Conserving this working countryside means that the vital natural functions will continue to benefit Ontarians now and long into the future.