nature-lovers heading off to the wilds this spring may be shocked, as I was, to discover some terrible changes to their favourite conservation areas. Some weeks back I wandered into Hilton Falls, a conservation area on the Niagara Escarpment, and happened upon a mass of stacked logs the size of a city block. Here were the remains of 300 mostly 80-year-old oaks. The park, 1,600 acres of public land that's home to a variety of fauna and dozens of hiking trails, is part of a UNESCO Biosphere zone, one of a handful of ecologically sensitive areas in the world selected because of their diversity and environmental vulnerability.
Apparently, that wasn't enough to save the aged oaks. But Conservation Halton has its own spin, calling the cut "a good forestry practice designed to improve the overall condition of the forest." A sign erected near the stumps tells me the cutting was done to protect the public from falling trees, maintain species diversity and boost habitats -- a well-managed "thinning" intended to stimulate the growth of younger trees.
But was this thinning or high-grading, a ruthless forestry practice of eliminating the strongest and biggest trees for financial gain? With conservation authorities desperate for cash and Ministry of Natural Resources staff a scarce resource themselves, we should get ready for more tree carnage.
"If they're taking all the big trees, they're high-grading," says Anna Maria Velastro of Peaceful Parks.
Then there's the secrecy surrounding the Hilton Falls logging. The decision was made by an unlicensed forester, without public input. Ask Gord Krantz, Milton's mayor and a board member of Conservation Halton and the Niagara Escarpment Commission, if he ever approved the logging operation at the park and he'll tell you he's never heard of it. "Must have missed that meeting," he says.
According to Bill Gaines, forestry coordinator at Conservation Halton, the authority is so starved for money, it has chosen to cash in on its parks. "Most of our revenue now comes from gate receipts. The provincial levy has been cut drastically, and municipal levies have remained about the same. We have to be accountable for our own operations and where we can generate money," he admits, noting that the health of the forest is also a priority.
According to the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (CIELAP), provincial operating grants to conservation authorities were reduced by 42 per cent in 1997-1998. Anita Krajnc, the Sierra Club's forestry specialist, says the government has "devastated the budgets of these authorities and allowed them more freedom to produce revenue."
Velastro confirms this. "In Ontario, the Harris government has gutted the MNR to the point that they've really become just administrative assistants to the industry. They don't have the capacity to do field work and monitor."
With MNR leaving control of conservation areas in the hands of groups like Conservation Halton, only tree-cutting bylaws stand in the way of flat-out logging. But the line between municipality and conservation authority is frequently blurred. In Halton, Gaines not only acts as the conservation area's forester, but is also Halton's bylaw officer, deciding what woodlots can be logged. In cases like this, when who cuts and who approves overlap, accountability becomes an issue.
And it's not difficult to get permission to log. When he's asked if obtaining tree-cut approval is a challenge, Richard Keyso, the logger who purchased the trees at Hilton Falls, answers, "No, it's not."
In addition to their increased decision-making power, conservation authorities now report only to themselves. Officially under the auspices of the MNR, the authorities are left to their own devices, confirms MNR forester Bohdan Kowalak. And the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC), whose mandate is the protection of the escarpment, is largely made up of elected municipal reps. Richard Murzin, NEC's spokesperson says that although he hasn't seen the harvested plot, Conservation Halton's logging "doesn't conflict with the Escarpment plan." Murzin adds that NEC goes through an extensive process to determine whether there has been a violation, and notes that not all authorities decide to use their resources to generate revenue.
"Some are holding their own without having to do that, and others find that due to the fact that they've been cut back, they look to that as an option. As an organization, we have to trust the conservation authority," he says.
"Trust" is not a big item among local environmentalists. The conservation authorities, says Don Scallen of the Halton/North Peel Naturalists Club, look at the forest as a financial resource. "I had a difficult time accepting their rationale for tree-cutting,' he says.
Says Jason Thorne of Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE), "Conservation authorities say they're just opening up the canopy to practise good forestry, but really it's a cash grab."
Tim Gray, executive director of the Wildlands League, agrees. "That's a way of pushing the forest to produce timber, " he says. "It's not necessary for forest health." Some naturalists feel that thinning leaves the poorer remaining trees more prone to infestations and fire, and to less diversity.
With little recourse, many watchdog groups are calling for more provincial funding. If revenue generation remains a priority, we'll have to get used to the sound of chainsaws. As one activist puts it,"Once a forester gets into a park, it's like trying to stop a train."