'We desperately need clarity' about province's plans, says conservation authority chair

Hamilton's conservation authority wants the province to clarify what it's asking when it told authorities to "wind down" activities that fall outside of their core mandate.

The province is calling on conservation authorities to 'wind down' activities outside of core mandate

Hamilton's conservation authority wants the province to clarify what it's asking when it told authorities to "wind down" activities that fall outside of their core mandate. (Instagram)

A letter from the province asking conservation authorities to "wind down" program activities that fall outside of their core mandate has set off alarm bells for Hamilton's Conservation Authority, says chair Lloyd Ferguson.

Concern has been raised because it isn't clear what the province considers core programs — and what it's asking each of Ontario's 36 conservation authorities to scale back on.

The request could leave authorities across the province without money-making programs that support their environmental work, and the end of popular outdoor recreational opportunities in many communities.

In an Aug. 16 letter, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks Jeff Yurek told authorities to  "begin preparations and planning to wind down those activities that fall outside the scope of your core mandate."

The letter calls on authorities to "re-focus" efforts on programs and services related to that core mandate, such as those related to:

  • Risk of natural hazards.
  • Conservation and management of authority-owned and controlled lands.
  • Drinking water source protection.
  • Other programs or services, as prescribed by regulation.
Jeff Yurek is minister of the environment, conservation and parks. (CBC)

"We desperately need clarity," said Ferguson, also a city councillor.

Ferguson says the HCA is now asking the province to define what they mean by core programs.

The HCA runs some non-core programs like the maple syrup festival at Westfield Heritage Village and Wild Waterworks at Confederation Beach Park. Those activities, among others, generate profits, Ferguson said. Without them, HCA wouldn't be able to do their core mandates without further government funding.

"I don't think that's the intent," said Ferguson.

"I don't think they want us to shut down programs that make us money to give relief to the tax levy and at the same time providing entertainment to the public."

According to Conservation Ontario, self-generated revenue programs for authorities like Hamilton's maple syrup festival and Wild Waterworks account for about a third of revenue. Municipal levies provide about half. 

Ferguson also made note that a lot of people use Hamilton's trails for recreation, particularly in the Dundas Valley and Eramosa Karst where money is collected through volunteer donations from visitors.

"Do they want us to stop allowing the public going in the enjoy nature? I doubt it, but that's what we've got to get clarity on," said Ferguson.

Coun. Lloyd Ferguson, chair of the Hamilton Conservation Authority board, says the board needs to know more. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"So now we're turning back to them to say, please define what you mean by core programs."

Ferguson says questions and concerns were also raised by others during a conservation authority session at the Association of Ontario Municipalities conference in Ottawa last week that he attended, so the HCA isn't alone.

Now it's a waiting game.

Ferguson says there's still some time before the changes come into play in 2020 and the matter will be a topic of discussion at a Sept. 5 board meeting.

In the meantime, alarm bells have been set off because, as Ferguson says, "the uncertainty is a terrible thing to deal with because your imagination goes wild with you, and we can't allow that to happen until we get the clarity."

'More heat than fire'

Dave Bylsma, mayor of West Lincoln and chair of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) board, says he doesn't think it's as big a challenge for the NPCA as it may be for other authorities.

"We'll have to do a structural change, but the new proposed core mandate is something that the NPCA is already doing on agreement with the participating municipalities."

He says it's a matter of the NPCA sitting down the Niagara region to outline the core mandate and things that will fall under a special levy — and how the build of things will change and in what direction.

Bylsma says each municipality and authority, or each watershed, has a unique relationship with each other and so in every authority, there will be a renegotiated agreement with their participating municipality.

More specially, Bylsma is referring to the NPCA's agreement with the Niagara Region to take responsibility for source water protection.

"We would actually have [to] take that one as a core mandate, which means it would be a shift because we're doing it as an agreement. That agreement portion would actually flip so we levy the region specifally for that responsibility," said Bylsma.

"So in a small way, I don't think it's going to impact the NPCA and its relationship to its participating municipalities in the same way that it might impact other conservation authorities."

He says letters like Yurek's sometimes create "more heat than fire" in waiting for more details from the province.

'Confusing and extremely disappointing'

In response to the ministry's letter, Conservation Ontario said it was "stunned."

"This is confusing and extremely disappointing," said general manager of Conservation Ontario, Kim Gavine, in an Aug. 19 press release.

The release continues to say that Conservation Ontario was not consulted by the province before it circulated its one-page letter.

"I can only assume they are trying to avoid criticism about downloading conservation authorities' programs and services to municipalities," said Gavine, referencing the cut earlier this year to conservation authorities' provincial funding for natural hazards.

Conservation Ontario's release says that what the government is proposing isn't taking into consideration the fact that the Conservation Authorities Act is still a work in progress.

"It was a very pre-emptive move that disregards the process and relationship that conservation authorities and municipalities have together," said Gavine.

At the end of Yurek's letter, he noted that he appreciates the work of conservation authorities and the feedback provided on the legislative changes. 

"I look forward to receiving further input and recommendations as we move forward with upcoming regulatory and policy proposals." 

About the Author

Laura Clementson is a journalist with CBC News. She can be reached at laura.clementson@cbc.ca. Follow Laura on Twitter @LauraClementson.


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