Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

Natural Landscape Design Presentation

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.