London conservation authority defends programs against environment minister

The Thames River, looking east from the area of Wonderland Road and Riverside Drive. Liny Lamberink / 980 CFPL

The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) is defending its programs and services in the wake of a letter sent by Jeff Yurek, Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP and minister of the environment, conservation and parks.

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The UTRCA says Yurek sent a letter to all of Ontario’s conservation authorities on Friday, suggesting they begin winding down all programs the province has deemed non-essential ⁠— in other words, all programs outside of flood control, drinking water source protection, and management of the conservation authority’s lands.

“Our tree planting program would no longer be essential or we’re to wind down those operations,” said general manager Ian Wilcox. “This despite the fact that we lose forest cover already every year, even though we plant 75- to 100-thousand trees.

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“We’d lose our water quality programs, all the work with private landowners and developers to minimize runoff. Our education programs, work around evasive species, species at risk.”

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Click to play video: 'Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre in Peterborough treated record 1,260 turtles' Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre in Peterborough treated record 1,260 turtles
Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre in Peterborough treated record 1,260 turtles – Aug 9, 2019

Wilcox also addressed a statement from the province claiming that conservation authorities have expanded past their core mandate into activities like ziplining — which the local agency does not offer — maple syrup festivals, and photography and wedding permits.

“That suggests a serious lack of understanding about what conservation authorities do. This is from the minister who has oversight of our act,” he said.

“I’ll be clear, we — and I say the collective we, all conservation authorities — have had a difficult time engaging the ministry and what the future of conservation authorities could be. We understand the priority of this government but we have been shut out of the conversation.”

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Wilcox also noted there was no financial incentive to curb the extra activities listed in Yurek’s statement.

“The province doesn’t pay anything for those operations. So directing us to wind down those operations, none of that would save the province a nickel,” Wilcox explained.

“All of those works are supported by local foundations, user fees, by us hustling contracts wherever we can find them to get this work done.”

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In that statement, Yurek said the province is asking agencies not to introduce new programs or increase fees while the province conducts a review.

“We are working to improve public transparency and consistency. Bringing conservation authorities back to their core mandate will allow municipalities to better manage conservation authority budgets and programs,” the statement read.

“Over the coming months, we will be reviewing all relevant legislation and regulations that govern Ontario’s conservation authorities and all conservation authorities have been asked not to proceed with any new programs or increases to fees or levies on municipalities while we are undergoing this review and updating the legislation.”

READ MORE: Ontario government cuts conservation authority funding for flood programs

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980 CFPL has requested further comment from Yurek, who is currently at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario meeting in Ottawa.

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