Ontario says proposed changes to endangered-species regulations will protect species and balance the needs of developers in what critics say is a blow to environmental protection.
On Thursday, Environment Minister Rod Phillips presented major proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, which gives legal protections to threatened and endangered species as classified by an independent committee. Alterations to the act include additional ministerial oversight and a new pay-in-lieu option rather than damage mitigation.
Developers would have the choice to pay a regulatory charge instead of completing on-the-ground activities required by the act to mitigate damage caused through development, such as planting trees of the same species elsewhere. Mr. Phillips said the cost would be close to those required for mitigation but that there would be further consultation.
The money would go into a Crown agency called the Species at Risk Conservation Trust, which will then disburse the funds to third parties to support protection and recovery.
“This payment is not … an opportunity for business to walk away," Mr. Phillips said. "It is an opportunity for an increased efficiency and a more strategic focus on how we preserve species in their habitat.”
The minister would also have the ability to establish guidelines for how the funding is used.
Initial response to the pay-in-lieu model was highly critical, with Green Party leader Mike Schreiner calling it a “pay-to-kill provision."
“Essentially you’re saying to developers, ‘Yeah go ahead and cut the tree down … but if you pay into a fund we’ll do a bit of research,’ " he said to reporters after the presentation. "Well you know what? It’s pretty hard to do research when the butternut trees are already cut down.”
Mr. Phillips used the butternut tree as an example of a species primarily threatened by disease where money from the trust fund could be used to research treatment.
He said the proposed changes were made in response to the findings of a 45-day public consultation launched in January.
“We’ve heard how the processes to obtain permits can be long, frustrating and unpredictable and how they can shift the focus away from finding the best solutions to protect species,” he said, adding that changes were designed to streamline processes and create more “realistic” timelines. The proposal increases the time frame of listing newly classified species to 12 months from three, including species classified in 2019. It also gives the minister the authority to suspend protections under certain criteria for up to three years, whereas those protections are currently automatic when a species is added to the list.
The Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), which manages the list, must also take additional direction from the minister as well as consider a species’ wider geographic area, both inside and outside Ontario, meaning those creatures not at risk in other areas would be candidates for delisting.
Membership of that committee would also be broadened solely from scientists and persons with Aboriginal traditional knowledge to include those with relevant expertise in ecology, wildlife management and community knowledge.
“So now you’re going to be able to put people on there who may not even believe that endangered species are important,” said Tim Gray, executive director of the Environmental Defence advocacy group, who called the changes “shocking and indefensible.”
“I think it is clearly an attack on some of the environmental protections that we’ve had,” NDP environmental critic Ian Arthur said. “This is Premier Ford opening another avenue to conduct backroom deals with his developer buddies in Ontario."