LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Farmland vs. Wetland
Striking a balance between environmental responsibility and economic viability

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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July 26, 2005: Farmlands and wetlands share our countryside. Ducks Unlimited is leading a national consultation seeking policies that will allow the two to co-exist. At the recent Ontario workshop I undertook to vent my frustrations with how we do wetland policy, in this province and beyond.

1. The context is muddled

Are we still losing wetlands across all of Ontario or only in South-western Ontario? How much wetland is enough for stewardship or for ecological sustainability? How far can we allow wetlands to shrink before we have an ecological disaster? Clearly, with regard to prime farmland preservation, Ontario, caught in a declining level of self-sufficiency in food, must find a way to keep all its Class 1 to 3 farmland. That includes draining lands that are wet. While drainage enhances agricultural productivity, farming land that remains wet results in soil degradation. Consultations on wetland policies need a clear context for how much – or how little – is enough?

2. The owners of private land wear two hats

Farmers have two interests, land ownership and agricultural business. As businesses, farmer concerns about wetlands include loss of cultivated acres, wildlife depredation and new challenges for managing drainage. As landowners, farmer concerns focus on the loss of development opportunity as more of our countryside is urbanized. These two, but distinct, interests need to be recognized in wetland discussions.

3. Policies are incomplete

We have a long history of creating great environmental policies at the local, provincial and national levels that generate mediocre results – at best. We have more policies than programs. Policies are incomplete without programs that implement them. Programs mean money. The arrival of Ontario’s Nutrient Management Act is a good example of a legislative process that delivered detailed protocols and regulations long before program money became available. The regulatory changes announced in June have tried to balance the amount of policy with better funding. The Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt has suffered the same fate – detailed boundaries and policies enshrined in legislation, followed much later by the announcement of some funding to affected municipalities, and a new foundation. Our approach to environmental policy needs an overhaul: include economic impact statements with draft policy proposals; build program dollars into protocols and regulations for adopted policies and plans. Future wetland policies without program money should be labelled “wishful thinking.”

4. We focus on the costs instead of the benefits

Our environmental programs have a long history of focussing on the costs of creation stewardship rather than the benefits of environmental enhancement. Past and present programs emphasize cost-share. Think of the programs of two decades ago, Stewardship I and II, the new money announced for nutrient management and the wide range of funding possible under third generation Environmental Farm Plans. This has focused stewardship narrowly on making physical and management changes on our farms. Meanwhile, wetlands have ecological benefits. Let’s quantify them and create a payment system for those who maintain and enhance those benefits. Paying for ecological benefits will support enduring stewardship rather than one-time changes.

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Information about funding under third generation Environmental Farm Plans can be found at: www.ontariosoilcrop.org/EFP/EFP.htm

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