Hamilton 350 Committee

Below is a copy of what we at Hamilton 350’s position regarding the Hamilton Conservation Authority’s Natural Heritage Offsetting Discussion Paper.

Our submission lists and addresses the formal “questions for consideration” found in the Hamilton Conservation Authority’s Natural Heritage Offsetting Discussion paper survey. These are part of the feedback you’ll give to the HCA when emailing them about their potential “offsetting policy”. We’ve included a copy of these questions in our submission. Hamilton 350’s responses to them are included in italics.

Hamilton 350’s Submission

Formal questions in HCA consultation followed by the Hamilton 350 Committee responses in italics.

HCA wishes to ensure that anyone with an interest in this policy has the opportunity to provide input. The following questions are provided to help the HCA understand the approach and thoughts of our stakeholders and the public.

Please do not feel restricted to answer only the questions, if you have additional thoughts and comments, please do not hesitate to provide your additional thoughts to the HCA.

The Hamilton 350 Committee strongly recommends that the HCA drop its consideration of an offsetting policy.

We are concerned that the consultation leaves the false impression that an offsetting policy strengthens protection of natural features when the opposite is true. The survey fails to make clear that offsetting is not permitted at this time. It also doesn’t explain that nearly all Conservation Authorities do NOT have an offsetting policy (only 3 out of 36 have one). And it neglects to explain that the request for an offsetting policy has come from land developers, not because of an interest in protecting the public good. We suggest that the reputation of the HCA as a protector of natural features could be damaged by adoption of an offsetting policy and that it will undermine public support and donations for the positive work of the HCA.

Recently, the HCA experienced very strong public opposition when its board considered an ad hoc offsetting application by owners of 140 Garner Road. There were over 200 letters submitted and a petition of nearly 500 names compiled in opposition to this proposed offsetting. We note that the reason given by the HCA for NOT approving this ad hoc offsetting of a wetland and segment of the Ancaster Creek headwaters was: “The decision of the Board of Directors was to support the staff recommendation and not issue the permit as the proposed development does not meet HCA policy.” What would be the result if the HCA had an offsetting policy?

Question 1. What policies do you think should be put in place by HCA in regard to natural heritage offsetting?

No offsetting policy should be approved for multiple reasons including the following:

  • Existing protection policies are insufficient to ensure no degradation or loss of natural heritage features. An offsetting policy makes this situation worse.
  • Natural heritage features are extremely complex and we simply don’t have sufficient knowledge to be able to replace them. New information and science is continuously appearing that underlines how little humans understand the functioning and importance of natural features. For example, a few years ago it was not understood or even contemplated that a complex cooperative relationship exists within healthy ecosystems including sharing resources, regular communications and other links as described by Simard. A few years ago the role of ecosystems in countering climatic change was ignored.
  • The HCA watersheds exist within Ecoregion 7E which features the highest number of threatened species in Ontario. About three-quarters of wetlands in southern Ontario have already been lost. In the GTA there are only 10% of the original ones remaining.

Question 2. Are there gaps or issues missed in the Discussion Paper that would help provide greater insight and direction relating to natural heritage offsetting policy?

Yes. The policy paper makes no reference to and does not take account the climate emergency and the implications of an offsetting policy for avoiding more greenhouse gas emissions. Natural heritage features such as wetlands and forests are significant carbon sinks that should be maintained and enhanced to contribute positively to minimizing climate change. These features also strongly assist in reducing the well-known effects of climate change such as flooding, drought and extreme heat.

In addition these features provide critical habitat for many species.

Reference is made to recommendations from Ontario Nature that any such policy should recognize Indigenous rights including the right to full participation in decisions affecting treaty obligations but no commitment to do so is included.

The HCA should fully recognize Indigenous rights including the treaty obligations to protect traditional hunting, fishing and gathering rights, the requirement to protect the integrity of the water and prevent pollution, and the general obligation to maintain the ecological integrity of the waters and lands within HCA jurisdiction.

Question 3. Given that the Province has implemented mandatory permits through MZO which require offsetting, what should HCA do to conserve the natural heritage when such a permit is required?

Firstly it should publicly and loudly challenge MZOs and ensure that it is well understood by the public that MZOs override provincial rules respecting environmental protection and planning policy, and that MZOs eliminate requirements for public consultation and other features of due process.

Secondly it should make clear as the TRCA did that any permit issued by HCA for an MZO is only done “under duress”.

Thirdly, it should impose very stringent permit conditions that demand full compensation to all aspects of the natural environment including the impacts on species; that require replacement of lost or damage ecological features at least three times greater than the area lost; and that require that replacement features be installed and demonstrably fully functional before the existing features are removed to ensure wildlife have a place to move to, and that the compensatory features are permanent.

Question 4. An option for the policy is that any of our natural heritage offsetting policies or guidelines would be in line with the City of Hamilton and County of Wellington/Township of Puslinch approaches and policies. Therefore, decision related to offsetting would be led by the municipalities. What are your comments about this approach?

To put the municipal governments in charge would be reversing existing practice. Currently the HCA uses its ecological expertise to inform municipal policies. Neither the municipal governments nor the HCA should embrace offsetting policies.

Question 5. The Discussion Paper provides a draft policy framework in Section 9 that could be used by the HCA to finalize natural heritage offsetting policy. Does the framework approach provide adequate direction for protection of existing features and for offsetting as a natural heritage management tool?
None of the 7 principles take the climate emergency into account (prioritizing development over any natural heritage feature is a dangerous idea) … The large majority of the Offsetting Policy discussion assumes that greater or equal ecological compensation can actually be achieved, when the likely outcome is that it can not be replaced.

Principles 1 & 2: “Adherence to Mitigation Hierarchy” & “Achievement of Net Gain”, These first two points include vague phrasing like “mitigate any unavoidable negative impacts” which leave room for interpretation by the developer. Bottom line: Impacts are always avoidable if our CA is able to say no to development. (and not play a game of offsetting)

Principle 3: “Offsetting has limits” , This is the most important principle (and perhaps should be the only one on this list) – some lands should be off limits, “period” … … it is quite possible that in many/most situations the ecological value of the land to our food production, drinking water filtration, and air filtration (carbon sink) can not be replaced.

Principle 4: “Equivalency” This principle discusses that offset should be made equivalent in terms of size and quality of the land – however there is more vague phrasing here (left to interpretation of developer), and nowhere does it make mention that a wetland should be compensated with a wetland specifically and not another kind of feature, or something such as a murky toxic stormwater pond. Nor does it make note of what currently exists where this new feature is going to be placed (e.g. will valuable forest be cleared, to make way a new artificial wetland? That defeats the alleged objective of offsetting.

Principle 5: “Permanent Outcomes” This notes that the offset should be designed to last as long as the project’s impacts do. … It does not say what is to be done if the offset fails and does not last (a very real probability).

Principle 6: “Alignment with Municipal Policies and Approaches”, This principle echoes guiding question 4, and Again, our environmental experts at the CA should be the leaders in defining what should be done to manage our ecosystems and watersheds. The City environmental policies should be taking note from the CA experts, not the other way around.

Principle 7: “Cost Recovery” This says that the cost of the offset should be recovered – again this wording is vague and left dangerously open to the interpretation of the developer . It leaves room for the developer not to be accountable for the full cost of the offset, or its ongoing monitoring … which is another very real possibility as the true cost of creating/monitoring a sustainable synthetic ecosystem is so high the cost may rival the profit from new development.

Question 6. Should the approach in the draft policy framework for offsetting be based on a “no net loss” or a “net gain” philosophy? What are your thoughts on the preferred approach that makes it the best option?

This question is making a big assumption, it’s suggesting that offsetting can actually be achieved, that developers can actually recreate a wetland, forest, or fertile soil. Historically, these natural heritage features are created by slowly evolving geology that creates certain mixtures of soil and minerals, bedrock depth, and aquifers over thousands of years – and then hundreds of years to create complex root systems, and establish sturdy nutrient cycles, and food chains, from smallest soil microbe to top predator, ensuring that a functioning ecosystem of microbial life and plant life is established and will continue (these are essential features to clean our air, and filter our water).

It is doubtful whether a natural heritage feature can be recreated artificially to any meaningful degree at all, and it would be impossible to derive the same ecological value (biodiversity, air and water filtration, flood prevention, food production) from a new artificial wetland/feature made by a developer rushing to appease an offsetting policy as cheaply and quickly as possible before they can build.

We fear that pretending a natural feature (like a wetland) can be “offset” at all (as the very existence of this policy suggests) is dangerous and will only leave us in a net loss scenario. (not “net gain”, or “no net loss”, as this question guides us to think).

As we see climate change making its mark across our province, country, and the world, now is not the time to lose any more natural heritage features that may buffer the blow to our safety with their priceless ecological value.

No development is worth our health and safety. Therefore no Offsetting Policy should be permitted. Ecological integrity is not something to play make believe with.