It’s business as usual despite minister’s comments, says conservation authority
It’s business as usual at the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority as the provincial minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks urges them to “wind down” non-core activities.
Jeff Yurek said Tuesday the Doug Ford government is gearing up for consultations with municipalities, conservation authorities, Indigenous communities and stakeholders to create the regulations and cover mandated programs necessary for the province.
“We found conservation authorities had really expanded what they are covering — some owned golf courses, ski hills and water parks,” Yurek said.
His comments came after Yurek sent a letter to conservation authorities across the province last week telling them to “refocus their efforts” on the delivery of programs and services related to their core mandate.
Their core mandate, he said in the letter, relate to the risk of natural hazards, conservation and management of authority-owned or controlled lands, drinking water source protection and “other programs or services, as prescribed by regulation.”
Sue Buckle, manager of communications and outreach at the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority, said it is “really too early to tell” what will happen to some of the facilities and programs of the local authority, such as the Chippewa Creek EcoPath, guided tours of conservation areas such as Laurier Woods and the Laurentian Ski Hill.
The conservation authority owns the property and capital assets of the ski hill, such as the lifts, but the hill is operated separately by a volunteer board of directors.
“The conservation authority is working very closely with the province” on new rules and regulations,” Laurentian Ski Hill president Chris Fulton said.
“From our perspective, it is business as usual.”
He declined further comment.
“Right now, there is no reason we should not be doing those things,” Buckle said.
“We need to get clarification” from Yurek.
Conservation Ontario, the association which represents the province’s 36 conservation authorities, called the Friday letter from Yurek “confusing and extremely disappointing.”
The message comes as Conservation Ontario and conservation authorities across the province are in talks with the ministry to make changes to support the provincial government’s agenda to eliminate the deficit and implement the new Housing Strategy.
“We are going to continue business as is,” Buckle says. “We are not making any changes” at this time.
Buckle pointed out the conservation authority owns a number of properties across the region “for a number of reasons,” such as protecting the public from natural hazards, protecting heritage and cultural sites and natural values.
“We have people come out and explore nature, use them for recreation and tourism,” she said.
Those properties, she said, are funded “outside of provincial monies.”
The province provides about 13 per cent of the local conservation authority’s $3.7-million budget.
In a release issued Wednesday, the authority noted its 10 member municipalities “have a say in local programming through their representatives on the board of directors whose members approve the budget and municipal levy.”
North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority CAO Brian Tayler said Tuesday the province provides the smallest share of the agency’s budget.
Of the remainder, 28 per cent is self-generated revenue, 14 per cent from grants and other revenues, 35 per cent from the municipal levy approved by the board and 10 per cent from surplus.
“The province is actually our smallest source of revenue and already cut back their funding of important natural hazard and flooding program by 50 per cent this past spring,” Tayler said.
“The flood forecasting and flood control initiatives we deliver are important to the people of the watershed,” Tayler said. “This spring’s flooding is the perfect example of why these programs are essential.”
Numerous areas of the region were hit with heavy flooding in the spring, including Mattawa, La Vase watershed and Jocko Point.
Ian Wilcox, general manager of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority in London, warned of the loss of vital environmental programs such as stream buffers, block plantings, erosion control, water quality programs and conservation work with land owners for which the province doesn’t provide funding.
“We question the province’s authority to make this request,” he said. “The province has not consulted with the watershed municipalities that oversee the conservation authority and provide 30 per cent of our funding.”
Other work slashed would include fisheries and invasive species programs, trail development and education and public outreach programs, Wilcox said.
“All these things are something the community seems to really want,” he said.
Wilcox also said the province’s directive to conservation authorities states the agencies cannot replace flood protection funds, recently cut by the province, through additional municipal levies.
“This is an essential service that protects lives and property, and work that must continue,” he said. “Who then is to pay the bill for a program that ensures people are protected from flooding?”