Tree ‘strategy’ falls way short

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Editor’s note: This letter is addressed to the mayor, council and municipal administration.

Sir: Thank you for providing the opportunity to pre-screen the Chatham-Kent Natural Heritage Implementation Strategy (CKNHIS). We, as a group, are dedicated to protecting the remaining forests within the jurisdiction of Chatham-Kent, and have carefully read and discussed this document.

After discussion and consultation with stakeholders and landholders, we have grave concerns over the shift away from forest protection and misrepresentation of the public interest.

This implementation strategy appears to be at odds with itself whenever referencing forest protections, in a way similar to the difference between municipal words and deeds.

We begin with, a quote from page 17 of the CKNHIS:

“… replanting to compensate for the loss of existing forest cover does not address the significant losses that are realized when mature woodlands are removed.”

In the recent past, the 2007 CK Community Strategic Plan included environmental outcomes like, “Increase natural habitat such as tree coverage grasslands and wetlands and create linkages among these natural areas in Chatham Kent,” and, “Maintain and enhance Chatham-Kent’s existing biodiversity.”

In the face of burning brush piles that were once 1500 acres of living forest communities, these noble words are as sterile as ashes and ephemeral as smoke.

Indeed, a shameful breach of public trust.

And yet, page 6 of the 2014 CKNHIS contains this bold-faced sentence: “Chatham-Kent has shown leadership in the effort to maintain and advance woodlands, wetlands and grasslands for over a decade.”

The author of this statement seems to have forgotten that the very reason this document was produced was precisely because of the unwillingness of elected representatives to protect our woodlands and wetlands. With the exception of a few brave councillors, leadership and drive to “maintain and enhance Chatham-Kent’s existing biodiversity” comes from outside the walls of city hall.

Limits of staff

The table on page 77 of the CKNHIS contains a column, to the right, for “Implementation Strategy” to “retain existing forest cover.” Item (a) reads: “Chatham-Kent has opted for a policy rather than tree cutting bylaw.”

There has, as of yet, been no vote on the prepared Forest Conservation Bylaw. The individuals purporting to represent Chatham-Kent through a statement in a PDF file are in violation of Section 23.2 of the Ontario Municipal Act, which reads: “Restriction re: officers, employees, etc.

“No delegation of a legislative power shall be made to an individual described in clause (1) (c) unless, in the opinion of the council of the municipality, the power being delegated is of a minor nature and, in determining whether or not a power is of a minor nature, the council, in addition to any other factors it wishes to consider, shall have regard to the number of people, the size of geographic area and the time period affected by an exercise of the power. 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 15.”

Acting in “good faith”

Below is a quote from the March 25, 2013 report titled, “Municipal Legal Capacity to Regulate Trees and Woodlands,” by John Norton, director of legal services, directed to mayor and council: “The decision to enact or not enact a temporary bylaw on the clear cutting of trees in Chatham-Kent is a decision to be made by the municipal council. The decision involves balancing off the competing interests of property owner rights against the need to preserve forest and trees. So long as the municipal council acts in good faith in making this decision, I do not believe the municipality can be found liable for the resulting decision. Additionally, individual municipal councillors cannot be held liable for any act done in good faith in the performance of their duties. This includes for either for or against a temporary clear cutting bylaw.”

However, what municipal administration, mayor and council can be held accountable for, would be if there were any form of collusion that purposefully directs council to act in bad faith towards the issue of voting on the “received” bylaw.

To put it bluntly, mischaracterizing the CKNHIS, which includes no actions to protect habitat, as an alternative to a bylaw, which directly addresses habitat loss, would be a form of bait and switch, misdirection.

It is the duty of elected representatives to focus on the issues before them and not seek opportunities to avoid their sworn duty, to represent the public interest.

It’s understandable that a vote on a forest protection bylaw, by mayor and council would have a degree of political risk, however, that’s why we pay them.

We, the electors of Chatham-Kent, expect a return on our investment of time and money spent in developing the existing forest conservation bylaw.

Cultural change

The document also refers to, “fostering a Culture of Natural Heritage Conservation.” Although this noble, long-range aim may eventually spread beyond the minority of local landholders, it’s as vague and nebulous as smoke in the hard realities of land valuation and commodity prices.

When temporary market fluctuations result in permanent habitat loss, protection is our only reasonable course.

Page 15 of the CKNHIS implies: “… agriculture is the primary pressure on the natural features in Chatham-Kent …”

This statement reveals a basic ignorance of the fact that a particular form of industrial agriculture, tied to international market forces, is the primary driver of recent land clearing. Rural culture in Chatham Kent is widely diverse and not necessarily tied to the economic realities of export-driven industrial monoculture. In fact, marginalizing the good work of land stewards does more harm than good.

Lumping all farmers into a single category not only miss-characterizes agriculture in Chatham-Kent, but appears to be a deliberate attempt to hide the few landholders who do the most environmental damage.

Most C-K farmers did not damage forests, and non-residents destroyed some woodlots.

The process

The process of developing a bylaw, which began and ended in 2013, resulted in a model bylaw, patterned on the Lambton Forest Conservation bylaw. Members of the KFA the CK Woodlot Preservation Group and other land-based organizations participated in its development. This Implementation Strategy, originally called a “policy” was developed without the recommendations of the active proponents of woodland protection, who, through petition, represent thousands of citizens throughout Chatham-Kent who demand municipal legal protection of forest habitat that aligns with municipalities across the province, and conforms to the requirements of the C-K Official Plan.

As it is, the CKNHIS was developed by a private firm and it excludes regulation as a measure of protection. This enables a “business as usual” method of environmental protection in Chatham-Kent.

The future

A quote from page 36 of the CKNHIS highlights a misunderstanding of our intent.

“Many members of the public in Chatham-Kent have made it clear that they would like council to take a greater interest in, and a stronger position on, natural heritage conservation within their community.

“Council should be pleased with this because a community that is engaged and interested in the health of their city is a community that is committed to the long-term success and betterment of their city.”

Our interest is not the betterment of “their city.” Our one demand is protection of the environment!

It’s best to end with a quote from page 17 of the CKNHIS, which, in a very different character, sums up the need for immediate action.

“While stewardship and restoration efforts are extremely important, replanting to compensate for the loss of existing forest cover does not address the significant losses that are realized when mature woodlands are removed. It will take decades for restoration areas to mature and these areas cannot immediately compensate for the loss of existing mature natural heritage features and functions. The removal of mature natural heritage features from the landscape removes decades, and sometimes centuries, of ecological functioning and complex biotic and abiotic interactions. These complex functions cannot be replaced by simply planting seedlings. In addition to the outstanding restoration efforts that have been taking place, action is needed now to slow, and eventually stop, the removal of these mature features in order to preserve what is left of Chatham-Kent’s natural heritage legacy. “

If we’re to be using a “systems-based approach” as author, Jennifer Lawrence suggests in the CKNHIS, then perhaps we might begin by not destroying existing eco systems rather than focusing on man-made replacements.

CK Woodlot Preservation Group

Chatham-Kent

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