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A sweeping solution will be announced today that puts all but a small fraction of environmentally threatened land north of Toronto off limits to development, according to government and environmental sources.

Provincial legislation to protect more than 90 per cent of the Oak Ridges Moraine is expected to be announced this morning by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Chris Hodgson. The rules follow recommendations of a government advisory panel, the sources said.

The overall protection package is a dramatic change after several years in which the province avoided involvement in the controversy and left development decisions to individual municipalities.

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Sources say the province will also establish a foundation that will place up to $250-million in trust over several years to buy private land on the moraine. The province will ask the federal and municipal governments to contribute.

Almost 40 per cent of the 500,000 hectares would be conservation areas connected by wildlife corridors at least two kilometres wide.

The province is also said to be ready to announce a deal to conserve an environmentally sensitive area in Richmond Hill by swapping sites owned by developers there with provincially owned land that is not on the moraine.

One source said the government's dramatic turnaround on the Oak Ridges Moraine has been shaped by a changed political environment, including widespread public protest and a by-election loss in a riding on the moraine. "This will be seen as Premier Mike Harris's urban green legacy," the source said.

The moraine, which stretches 160 kilometres from the Niagara Escarpment in the west to Northumberland County in the east, is the source of ground water in much of Southern Ontario.

Environmentalists contend that housing development on the area would permanently pollute the water.

"For us this is a spectacular victory. A clean sweep for the environment," said Glenn De Baeremaeker, president of Save the Rouge Valley System.

His group is part of a coalition of environmental groups that has been pressing the government for tough moraine protection over the past two years.

"This will change the course of urban history.

"Unchecked sprawl was going to kill us. This has not eliminated sprawl but it has stopped its cancerous spread."

Ric Symms, former director of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, who sat on the advisory panel, said, "This is an excellent achievement."

He said the protections are stronger than a 1994 moraine strategy that was proposed by the provincial government of the day but never implemented.

Mr. Symms said the protection will be as strong as the Living Legacy Trust set up by the province to conserve a large area in Northern Ontario. It may be stronger than the provincial rules that protect the Niagara Escarpment.

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There are still some sore spots that need to be addressed, said Josh Matlow, Oak Ridges campaign manager for the environmental group Earthroots. The proposed legislation allows a review after 10 years that could weaken many of the protections, he said. Environmental groups are also opposed to a clause that permits gravel pits to operate in the middle of wildlife areas.

Neil Rodgers, president of the Urban Development Institute, said the proposed legislation is important on two counts.

"A significant portion of the Greater Toronto Area land mass is now off limits for development, be it office buildings or residences," he said.

In addition, he said, the government's move presents a challenge to those who have fought development on the Oak Ridges Moraine -- including ratepayers in Toronto and neighbouring suburbs.

"Now they have to do their civic duty and accept density," Mr. Rodgers said.

"This is very encouraging. The kind of sprawl that is threatening the moraine doesn't make any sense," said U.S. watershed activist Robert Kennedy Jr.

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Mr. Kennedy is in Toronto to address this evening's Charles Sauriol memorial dinner, which is raising funds for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust. All of the 1,100 seats at the dinner have been sold.

Mr. Kennedy said he has been very aware of the moraine issue because the water supply to the city of New York comes from the same kind of moraine features that surround Toronto.

Widespread development around the Hudson Valley has degraded what was once some of the cleanest water in the world and forced governments to face huge remedial cleanups.

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