A natural heritage system is an ecologically based delineation of nature and natural function – a system of connected or to be connected green and natural areas that provide ecological functions over a longer period of time and enable movement of species. Natural heritage systems encompass or incorporate natural features, functions and linkages (also referred to as ‘corridors’) as component parts within them and across the landscape. They also enable the linking of different landscapes; reference Natural Heritage Reference Manual, 2010, OMNR
A Natural Heritage System Concept Plan for Mississippi Mills
On May 20, 2014, Tineke Kuiper, of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists, presented a Concept Plan for a Natural Heritage System (NHS) for the Town of Mississippi Mills to Council’s Committee of the Whole and a large group of interested observers in the gallery.
A Natural Heritage System is a network of identified Core natural areas (e.g., woodlands and wetlands), connected by linkages. In the case of our municipality, the linkage, Kuiper explained, is often water. Within such a system of interconnected core natural areas, the ecosystems involved are more resilient to change and diversity is enhanced. The system, thus becomes functionally more than the sum of its parts. Most of the larger municipalities in southern and southeastern Ontario have developed an NHS, and the new Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) under the Planning Act makes the development of an NHS mandatory for many smaller municipalities, including Mississippi Mills.
In his introduction to Council members, Town of Mississippi Mills Planner Stephen Stirling, thanked Dr.Tineke Kuiper, local biologist and chair of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists’ Natural Heritage Design Committee for her work in developing the concept plan. He noted the vital collaboration which had taken place with the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, especially with regard to Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping done by Alex Broadbent. The NHS Design Committee is comprised of a group of experts including ecologists, Cathy Keddy, MSc and Paul Smith, PhD, as well as Tom Coleman, Eng. Credit was also given to the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust, for providing mapping assistance during the early phase of the project.
Kuiper gave several reasons for the importance of identifying Natural Heritage Systems. First, there are the benefits and services provided by Nature, such as maintaining biodiversity, flood control, regulation of greenhouses gases, recreation, and the provision of personal feelings of well-being. She then explained that fragmentation (the breaking up of natural landscapes into disconnected, small pieces through human activities) and the reduced landscape connectivity which results, is detrimental to the survival of many wildlife species. Lastly, she indicated that a NHS could act as a bulwark to cope with events such as climatic extremes (droughts and floods), which may lead to crop failures and associated food toxicants.
Steps in the design and identification of a Natural Heritage System for Mississippi Mills
The unique location of Mississippi Mills, at the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, results in a wonderfully rich biodiversity in our area, and the NHS Design Committee recommended that an NHS be identified for the municipality as a whole.
In designing and identifying the concept plan for the NHS for Mississippi Mills, Kuiper showed Council how they began by identifying Core areas, based on natural heritage features already designated by the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), such as Provincially Significant Wetlands, Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest, and associated or nearby MNR-identified Significant Woodlands.
Using detailed maps, Kuiper showed the process used for characterization and prioritization of MNR-identified Significant Woodlands. The focus was on larger woodlands with an interior forest habitat (i.e. forest further than 100 or 200 m from an edge; essential for many species of breeding birds and other animals), as well as woodlands with potential old growth (older than 80-100 years), or those with uncommon species of trees. Any such prioritized woodlands that were outside previously identified natural Core areas were then designated as Rural Natural Area. Many of these designated Rural Natural Areas are some distance from the areas with greater development pressure.
Next, using the maps, Kuiper showed how our rivers and creeks, with a 30 m buffer on each side (as required under the PPS), could provide natural linkages, so that all areas can work together ecologically as a System. In addition, some Significant Woodlands adjacent to rivers were included as stopover or shelter areas for wildlife. Once these natural linkages were incorporated into the municipal NHS, it was found that few additional areas would be required for linking the Core areas, i.e. probably less than 1% of the total area of the municipality.
The town of Almonte itself includes a stretch of the Mississippi River, part of the Wolf Grove creek, and several important natural areas, one of which is Gemmill Park. It is important to protect the river edge and include these natural areas in a Natural Heritage System. Such areas have been designated as Urban Natural Area.
In summary, the following four Core natural area designations were recommended for inclusion in the NHS: Natural Heritage Area (Pakenham and Wolf Grove wetland complexes, Appleton Wetlands, Burnt Lands and Panmure alvars);Wetlands (White Lake, Clayton –Taylor Lake, Mississippi Lake); Rural Natural Area (some of the Significant Woodlands); and Urban Natural Area (e.g., Gemmill Park). The rivers and creeks within Mississippi Mills, and in the region, will provide most of the connectivity between the various core components within the NHS.
Tineke Kuiper concluded that because the Town of Mississippi Mill’s Community Official Plan is currently in the process of being revised, this NHS Concept Plan could easily be incorporated. Peer review of the NHS Concept Plan and public consultation could take place with the purpose of amending the COP in the future (target date 2015).
Many Councillors thanked Tineke Kuiper and the Committee for their thorough and excellent work. Having this work done by local experts represents enormous savings for the Town, noted Councillor Edwards, and provides the opportunity to balance conservation with sustainable development.
Nature Network News: Best Practices Guide to Natural Heritage Systems Planning:
“Ontario Nature’s Best Practices Guide to Natural Heritage Systems Planning is now available for download from the Ontario Nature website. Or download pdf here: nhs-guide-web. While provincial regulation promotes the planning of natural heritage systems – and even mandates it in areas like the Greenbelt – many municipalities are failing to do so. In these jurisdictions, natural areas are fragmented to the detriment of biodiversity. Ontario Nature’s new guide is designed to remedy this situation by identifying the best planning examples and providing insightful analysis from which other municipalities can learn. For more information about the guide, contact Josh Wise at . “
On Tuesday May 20, 2014 (6:30 pm, Town of Mississippi Mills, Council Chambers, Municipal Office, 3131 Old Perth Road, Almonte) there will be a presentation by Tineke Kuiper and MVFN’s Natural Heritage Design Committee of a Concept Plan for a Natural Heritage System for Mississippi Mills. In a short presentation, Tineke will outline the process involved in designing a Natural Heritage System. It is important for our Rural and Urban communities, as the NHS will include both. Extensive mapping for this project was provided by the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, as well as the Mississippi Madawaska Land Turst Conservancy. Once the Concept plan is approved, it is expected there will be public consultation by the town.
Come early to get a seat. Learn about this important milestone.
A Natural Heritage System (NHS), which is made up of core natural areas that are linked together ecologically—mainly through rivers and creeks, should help the municipality in making appropriate decisions for sustainable development. Since the components of an NHS work together as a system (the whole is more than the sum of its parts), an NHS is ecologically more robust and resilient to change. This benefits both us and the wildlife that lives within it.
Are you concerned about Natural Heritage in Mississippi Mills? The landscape is certainly not what it was 200 years ago, when settlers first started to arrive here and began homesteading. Since then many of the original forests have been lost, but some of the areas not suitable for farming are now growing back. Some areas were never farmed. With new concerns on the horizon, such as climate change, it is important that we tread carefully and make sure that future rural development is sustainable. In this way, if we take care of nature, we will be able to continue to reap the benefits that nature offers us. While we certainly cannot set the clock back to the early 1800s, we can create a well-functioning facsimile—a Natural Heritage System (NHS), which although not as extensive as before, should serve us and the wildlife around us well into the future. In fact, the Province as of April 30, 2014 has made it obligatory for municipalities in our region to identify an NHS.
For an informative guide to NHS’s please see Ontario Nature’s recently released publication: nhs-guide-web
Excerpt of Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists Press Release February 23, 2014
by Tineke Kuiper
How will Mississippi Mills grow over the next 20 years?
This is usually a question that Town Planners ponder while they develop well-integrated approaches for future growth, yet it should really be of interest to all of us. In 2005, leaders and volunteers in our community came together and created our first Community Official Plan (COP). The COP is a legal document containing the goals, objectives and policies that will guide the development, growth and change of the Town of Mississippi Mills over a 20-year period. The vision adopted by Town Council at the time was and still is:
“Mississippi Mills is an outstanding urban and rural community that is recognized for its natural and architectural beauty, high quality of life and respect for its heritage and environment. In its vision of the future, the community will be seen to promote and manage balanced economic growth.”
Every five years the COP is reviewed and updated to take into account changes in the community and provincial policy requirements. The Plan builds on the tradition of responsible stewardship of the resources and assets of the community.
The Town of Almonte (population ~5200) is located about 50 km from the centre of Ottawa, and as such it is an exurban town rather, than a suburb of Ottawa. The profile of our town is gradually changing from that of a rural mill town in an agricultural setting in the late fifties, to a self-sufficient, up to date and lively place with fine community spirit and cultural aspirations. It has gained a reputation as a good place to live and so, it also appeals as an exurban bedroom community for Ottawa and a retirement community. Both longtime residents and many newcomers alike share a strong sense of history, and optimism about the future of the community. Over the next 20 years, the municipality is expected to grow at a moderate annualized rate of 2.0%.
There are several villages, hamlets and settlement areas in the rural areas, and growth has varied. Between 1981-2001 annualized growth in Ramsay ward accelerated to 4.67% (with most dwellings on private services) compared to 2.45% in Pakenham ward and 1.03% in Almonte ward. The haphazard growth during that period dramatically changed the rural character and physical landscape of Ramsay. There were increased concerns about the loss of natural areas and the health of the environment, loss of farmland and noticeable impacts on the local agricultural industry. Most noticeable was the visual impact of scattered rural residences and country estate lot subdivisions. There were also concerns about cost and economies of scale of providing services to a dispersed population and urban sprawl.
Subdivisions often cut through natural areas. This breaks the natural area into two pieces, or fragments, thereby fragmenting wildlife habitat and altering wildlife movement patterns. The fragmentation of a large forest and wetland habitat into smaller patches disrupts ecological processes and reduces the availability of habitat for some species. It is the greatest threat to native biodiversity. Some forest fragments are too small to maintain viable breeding populations of certain wildlife species, especially bird species that require forest interior habitat (i.e., habitat that is in the interior of a forest, a long way from the forest edge). Ecological changes resulting from fragmentation include the introduction of invasive, exotic (non-native) species and increased predation and parasitism. Creating small, isolated forest patches can also interfere with pollination, seed dispersal, wildlife migration and breeding. Ultimately, these changes can result in the local loss of species.
While at first glance some may look nice, country estate lot subdivisions contribute strongly to fragmentation, much more so than normal severances (Figure 1). They directly impact biodiversity, through the direct removal of habitat, through the loss of interior habitat, through the introduction of non-native plants, and through predation/harassment by domestic animals, especially housecats. These effects are well documented in the scientific literature. Country estates lot subdivisions are also detrimental to the sustainability of villages, as residents of such subdivisions do not appear to support village services and amenities, but tend to commute to suburban areas, strip malls, etc., to conduct their business and shopping. As a result, many municipalities, such as Ottawa and Kingston, have now banned country estate lot subdivisions.
In a recent article in The Millstone (February 3, 2014), Brian Barth paints a picture of how urban sprawl in the USA, in the form of rural subdivisions and strip malls, has consumed many small rural towns, which prior to this had an unequivocally rural mentality and identity, like Mississippi Mills. This is a picture that is also being played out in Canada. He suggested that Ottawa is certainly not growing at the rate of cities like Atlanta, but its sprawl will eventually consume the communities around it. If the footprint of the Greater Toronto Area were to be transplanted to Ottawa, half of Lanark County would already be in it, he said. Urban sprawl consumes agricultural lands, natural areas such as wetlands and forested lands, adding impervious cover in its place.
Smart Growth instead of Urban Sprawl
One of the alternative development strategies to counteract urban sprawl is the concept of Smart Growth, an idea developed in the early nineties, and a strategy adopted in our 2005 COP, and promoted by the Province. Smart Growth is about reducing sprawl, it’s about growth management, it’s about creating livable communities, it’s about economic growth, it’s about protecting the environment, it’s about efficient government – it’s about all of these things! Communities across the country are using creative strategies to develop in ways that preserve natural lands and critical environmental areas, protect water and air quality, and reuse already-developed land. They conserve resources by reinvesting in existing infrastructure and reclaiming historic buildings. By designing neighborhoods that have shops, offices, schools, churches, parks, and other amenities near homes, communities are giving their residents and visitors the option of walking, bicycling, taking public transportation, or driving as they go about their business. Through smart growth approaches that enhance neighborhoods and involve local residents in development decisions, these communities are creating vibrant places to live, work, and play. The high quality of life in these communities makes them economically competitive, creates business opportunities, and improves the local tax base.
Smart Growth Principles
Based on the experience of communities that have used smart growth approaches to create and maintain great neighborhoods, the Smart Growth Network developed a set of ten basic principles:
1. Mix land uses
2. Take advantage of compact building design
3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
4. Create walkable neighborhoods
5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
7. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions
Preserve important Natural Heritage Areas
One of the principles of smart growth is to ensure that important natural areas are protected from development, so that critical habitat is preserved, and nature is able to run its course, providing fresh air and clean water. . . [the first step is . . . identifying and characterizing the most important areas and in developing a system of interconnected Core natural areas that will greatly benefit the community.] Based on mapped data, provided by OMNR, on provincially significant wetlands, significant woodlands, areas of natural and scientific interest, wildlife and other features, the first phase has been completed and several important Natural Heritage Core areas, such as the Wolf Grove and Pakenham wetland complexes, the Appleton wetlands, and the Burnt Lands Alvar, can now be designated. This information is important, as it allows for planning decisions on the appropriate location of development, as well as set an appropriate level of protection for individual Core areas. The next phase of this project will be completed within the next few years.
Difficult decisions ahead for Council
The current COP is not saying no to development, but rather provides direction on how to develop in a way residents have said they hope to see their community progress. Council is grappling with the question of how much development is appropriate and how we should go about doing it without losing the small town and rural character and natural heritage areas that we all highly prize and that our COP tries to help maintain. Thus, Councillors face some tough decisions. Your input is important at this time. A public meeting is being planned. Stay tuned.
Are we doing enough to protect natural areas and wildlife that lives there?
By Tineke Kuiper
Many communities in Ontario, Canada, and around the world have realized that it is important to protect large natural areas across their landscape, for the long term, with some having had the foresight to start doing this a long time ago. Increased growth should ideally take place outside important core natural areas.
In Ontario, the first step toward the protection of such core natural areas considers key natural features such as provincially significant wetlands, significant woodlands, and areas of natural scientific interest that are identified by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR). Data on these features form the basis for making decisions about which are the core areas that should be protected. The next step ensures that important core natural areas are connected to each other through natural linkages, resulting in a Natural Heritage System (NHS) which benefits both nature and us. This is of great interest not only to naturalists, but also to anyone who enjoys the outdoors or who owns property that may include natural features such as wetlands and woodlands.
Perhaps it is time to consider an NHS for Mississippi Mills. To find out what our neighbour, the City of Ottawa, is doing in this regard, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists invited Dr. Nick Stow, ecologist and for the last five years senior planner for land use and natural systems at the City of Ottawa, to speak at their last lecture for 2013. He chose the title ‘Natural Landscape Design: the Art of the Possible,’ which perhaps reflects on the fact that for progress to be made one needs to be optimistic and there needs to be a good dose of political will. Dr. Stow did not disappoint us, as he gave a well structured overview to an audience of at least 60 people. Using many maps, he showed how Ottawa and its partner, the National Capital Commission, have protected important natural core areas.
Using Google Earth, Dr. Stow showed the overall Ottawa landscape, where we can see two interrelated domains. In some areas, human-dominated towns and villages stand out, with their associated agricultural areas and connecting roads. In predominantly rural areas, we can see tracts of forests and wetlands, which are the domain of wildlife. These natural areas provide many ecological benefits that humans depend on, such as clean water and oxygen. When they become more diverse, as a result of protection, these ecosystems are more stable, resilient, and provide a greater range of benefits. These areas are also of intrinsic and psychological value to us.
When we apply basic conservation principles across the landscape, we see that context is important, such as geological history and the continuum of human impacts. Scale is also critical in considering types of biodiversity and for coarse-or fine filter planning. In addition, island biogeography, landscape fragmentation, and connectivity need to be considered. For all of these reasons, decisions about developing an NHS are best made at the local level.
Overall, Ottawa is about 1/3 urban, 1/3 agriculture, and 1/3 natural area. There is about 30 per cent forest cover, eight per cent of which is interior forest (over 100 metres from the forest edge). Deep interior forest (even farther from the edge) is most important for the protection of rare species and their habitat. Because of extensive forest fragmentation, such areas are rare near towns. There is about 20 per cent wetland cover, some of which overlaps with the forest cover.
Across the landscape, Ottawa uses four Natural Heritage Designations, said Dr. Stow. The first is natural environmental areas, which are core rural natural landscapes. These are probably the most important reserve areas, and they usually include several key natural features. Examples include the Morris Island Conservation Area, the Burnt Lands Alvar (shared with Mississippi Mills), the Carp Ridge (very similar to our Wolf Grove and Pakenham wetland complexes), the South March Highlands, and the Richmond Fen. Some areas, such as Stoney Swamp and Mer Bleue are part of the Greenbelt Master Plan. Restricted uses apply to these natural environmental areas and development is limited to a single dwelling on an existing lot with road frontage. The second designation is provincially significant wetlands. The third is other rural natural features consisting mainly of woodlands. The last is urban natural features, which are core urban natural areas where no development or site alteration is allowed, and for which priorities for acquisition are subject to budget. The compilation of the various rural land uses becomes part of Schedule A of the Official Plan (OP) and forms the basis for the zoning bylaw, which governs every square foot of the city.
He explained that planning for the protection of natural areas involves several pieces of legislation. The overall vision for Ontario’s Land Use Planning System is provided by the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) under the Planning Act. This indicates, under section 2.1.2, the need to develop and maintain natural heritage systems that include linkages between natural areas. In the next few clauses, it also identifies the restrictions on development and site alteration in the various natural features and their adjacent lands.
As municipalities develop their OPs, their policies (Ottawa’s Natural Heritage policies are shown in their OP under 2.4.2) must be consistent with the PPS, or as dictated by the local situation and vision, and they can be better than these minimum requirements, which Ottawa has done in several cases. The Natural Heritage Manual of OMNR provides further detailed guidance on developing an NHS and on the interpretation of the PPS.
Dr. Stow indicated that the National Capital Commission is a major partner with Ottawa and has been responsible for the development of the Greenbelt Master Plan. In addition, the Nature Conservancy of Canada has partnered with Ottawa and has developed an Ottawa Valley Conservation Plan for the prioritization of lands to consider for conservation and protection. Of interest to us is that part of Mississippi Mills (south of the Pakenham wetland complex) is included in their plan, with several high priority areas indicated in our area, as well as in Ottawa west and Beckwith Township.
As a result of a court challenge by the Greenspace Alliance at the Ontario Municipal Board, the City of Ottawa was recently forced to move from a ‘features’ approach that considered only core natural areas to a ‘systems’ approach, said Dr. Stow. The PPS requires core natural areas to be connected through linkages, in order to integrate them into a fully functioning NHS. Together with their partners, or alone, it has been agreed that Ottawa will identify and map by 2014 existing and conceptual natural heritage linkages at a city-wide scale, including consideration of regional linkages outside the city boundaries.
He showed the various approaches that the city has used to determine the most appropriate locations for these one kilometre-wide linkages, based on a computerized assessment of resistance to movement cost for species across the landscape. Resistance varied from one for woodlands and wetlands, to 20 for lakes and rivers, and 80 to 100 for transportation roads and impervious settled areas.
He ended his talk by presenting a conceptual and integrated framework for stewardship. Part of this showed the need for a special stewardship fund targeted for the protection of sensitive lands, primarily in the rural areas. Such a fund could be used to support stewardship of rural land, for the purchase of conservation easements and, if needed, for the acquisition of critical properties. His last slide showed an example of the problems that can occur when there is no plan in place. As a result of poor development choices southeast of the Carp Ridge, important habitat was lost and a population of Blanding’s turtles became isolated and threatened in the South March Highlands. Both areas involved are natural environmental areas, but a way of reconnecting them is needed. This shows that a good dose of political will is needed when decisions that are important in the long term may, for some, be less popular in the short term.
He cited examples of decisions that have long-term benefits that Ottawa would like to implement: a ban on country lot subdivisions, the adoption of a site alteration bylaw, the implementation of natural linkages, a mineral aggregate resource review, and the acceptance of the overall framework.