The Ontario government has introduced more industry-friendly rules coming from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to “simplify” and “streamline” provincial protection for species at risk.
The MNR announced May 31 that it will “harmonize” the Crown Forest Sustainability Act and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to cut bureaucratic red tape and avoid duplication.
Forestry operations will be exempt from the ESA and held to the provisions of the Crown Forest Sustainability Act for five years.
The new regulations stem from recommendations coming from stakeholder panel that was delivered to a government last winter.
Natural Resources Minister David Orazietti said the process undertaken included the views “ of a much broader number of stakeholders and organization that are impacted by the ESA than what was originally developed with the legislation.”
Since its passage in 2007, the Endangered Species Act had been a lightning rod piece of legislation that's rankled industry groups and Northern municipalities and polarized regions of Ontario.
Ontario's forest industry has steadfastly maintained that the ESA was a duplication of existing forest management practices. Many in industry had concerns over the cost of permitting, paperwork and access to the land to harvest wood or stake claims.
Orazietti said due to challenges over the last five years in implementing the legislation, the government formed a group of industry representatives, environmental groups including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), along with community and First Nation leaders.
The new regulations were formed from the 29 recommendations that the panel returned to the government.
The five-year exemption for forestry, he said, will ensure that there's adequate time to put the panel's recommendations in place and ensure harmonization of the two pieces of legislation.
Under the old regulations, Orazietti said public safety activity such as repairing a bridge turned out to be an onerous permitting process.
The new provisions ensures swift ministry approval so that work can quickly take place.
“The regulations continue to be stronger because of the effort that they made with respect to environmental protection,” said Orazietti.
“It would not be responsible of the government to ignore these concerns with regard to implementation over the last five years which is why we developed the panel.”
Orazietti maintains Ontario still has “leading” protection for species at risk and habitat protection in North America.
“We have broader support in Ontario for the legislation with the changes that continue to ensure this remains the gold standard for species-at-risk protection, but streamlines the regulatory process and make the implementation of it much more effective.”
He said the ESA has already had a positive impact in that nine species that previously had been identified as endangered or threatened have been downgraded in terms of endangerment.
The Ontario Forest Industries Association welcomed the regulatory changes. Association president Jamie Lim said members of the ESA Panel provided the government with “consensus-based recommendations” in January that the government is acting on.
Lim said these improvements will make implementation easier by harmonizing requirements under the ESA with the Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA) to maintain species while avoiding duplication. She said those mandatory requirements ready exist within the CFSA and all forest management plans submitted for government approval.
She dismissed the notion that the standard of protection is being lowered as “simply fear mongering.” Lim said the industry has never asked for relief of its duties to protect species at risk and has been carrying out its obligations for more than two decades.
These new improvements still maintain the high standards required for species protection while recognizing the potential for the forestry industry to grow.
Environmental groups were calling out the Wynne government for abandoning their commitment to species at risk.
A coalition of groups said these “sweeping exemptions” for industry will lower the standard of protection for endangered and at-risk animals and plants such as the woodland caribou, the spotted turtle and the blueheart violet.
The groups, including the Sierra Club of Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation, said the special five-year exemption for forestry threatens the woodland caribou which has lost half of its historic range in Ontario and will continue to decline due to industrial activity.