my comments on the Guelph Natural Heritage Strategy

Here is my letter to the City regarding their Natural Heritage Strategy.
During its planning and founding in 1827 Guelph was idealized as a model European settlement and its colonization and growth has, not surprisingly, resulted in being the typical slash and sanitize style.  First the trees go and the best farmland is found and the uplands are reserved for building homes.  Then the building continues on down the hills and any farming is pushed outside the city limits.  Finally the wet low areas and streams are drained or covered over and converted into schools and lower income homes.  Guelph certainly followed this path.  Now our city is summed up on Wikipedia in this way:

Because of its low crime rates, clean environment and generally high standard of living, Guelph is consistently rated as one of the country’s most livable cities.

Having grown up in Guelph I think that is a fair assessment as long as you are clear about what ‘clean environment’ means. Nature isn’t ‘clean’.  Wilderness areas don’t react well to being sanitized play areas for people.  The actual natural areas that were available when I went looking for such refuges when I was a young boy were very few and far between.  When I did my undergraduate work in Environmental Studies and Biology at the University of Waterloo I was surprised at how much more rich and available the natural area space in Kitchener and Waterloo were.  A colleague and I created what became known as the definitive guide to natural areas in Waterloo Region.  I remember thinking on several occasions when I returned home to visit family and friends just how a similar guide for Wellington County would be so pitiful in comparison.  Part of the reason for this, of course, is the wider variety of ecotypes in Waterloo but the rest lies in the policies of the City Council and other authorities that have shaped Guelph and area.  A very clean environment indeed.

So now that our society is maturing and learning to appreciate what the advantages of our natural heritage is (a less generous interpretation would be that we’ve realized just how dangerous a mess we’ve made in the stewardship of our environment) we begin to want to restore natural areas.  Not an easy nor a quick process.  I am currently serving on a local restoration committee and I know it can be a very tricky endeavour.  But it is very essential and I applaud the effort that has been put into Guelph’s Natural Heritage Strategy.  It deserves the greatest of care as the future will judge us by it.

There is, as is perfectly evident in the controversy last year in the Hanlon Business Park development, a large divide between the forces of development and those who want to see natural areas left alone.  The City’s Natural Heritage Strategy has to tread carefully on the natural area between the two extremes but I would urge your group to foster a long-term view.  My experience informs me that this means more areas need preservation than are included on your Natural Heritage System Map.  I would especially want to point that we need far more trees, wider zones around our rivers and a definite restoration effort made on behalf of our lost streams and creeks.  But I understand that we live in the short term and within even shorter municipal cycles.  There are shorter term results to be gained by sincerely adopting part of point 4 of your objectives:

To protect, maintain, enhance and restore the Natural Heritage System to the greatest extent possible, while providing for limited compatible development and activities as identified in this Plan that do not negatively impact the natural features and their ecological or hydrological functions.

Taking point 5 of the General Policies which I include below, I’d like to go over some of the issues that strike me most.

5. Development and site alteration shall not be permitted within the Natural Heritage System or established buffers to natural features, except for the following uses:
a) legally existing uses, buildings or structures,
b) passive recreational activities, such as trails and walkways,
c) scientific and educational activities, including interpretive signage,
d) fish and wildlife management,
e) forest management,
f) habitat conservation, and
g) restoration activities.

I understand the need for item ‘a’ and ‘c’ but it seems to provide room for loopholes in circumventing natural area protection.  I would urge you to tighten up the language here.  Trails and walkways are mentioned in item ‘b’ but these should not be considered a given for every natural area.  Some, especially natural areas identified as sensitive, may need to be left alone.  A great deal of thought must be put into the creation of trails so that they prevent the creation of damaging ad-hoc trails and do not cause more of an environmental problem (such as segmenting already thin riparian natural areas) than they were intended to solve.  Items ‘d’ and ‘e’ seem harmless but there are many different schools of animal and forest management that are not beneficial to natural heritage protection.  For example, the clearing out of dead trees is considered ‘good’ forest practice.  There is certainly a safety issue of leaving ‘widow makers’ and leaning trees alone but after the tree has been cut down it should be left in place (although a section can be cut out where it crosses a designated trail) to allow for micro-habitat and a return of nutrients to the forest.  As an example of where we’re going wrong with item ‘f’ I’d like to point out the redirection of the headwaters of a stream between Waverley Drive and the Guelph Country Club.  Most of Guelph’s creeks and streams have been covered over or their courses have been drastically changed.  Is this habitat conservation?  Does it even make sense?  These small waterways serve more than habitat ‘functions’.  By rerouting this particular stream through the golf course we increase the contaminant risk to our own drinking water supply.  Item ‘g’ is another issue that is easy to misinterpret:  what qualifies as restoration?  In your Restoration Areas section ( there is a complete lack of mention for a preference for native species when doing restoration. This is an obvious failing.  If you are trying to restore a habitat don’t you want to restore it to its original species?  Too often restoration experts will go for the quick fix in choosing non-native species that will grow fast and ‘solve the natural area problem’ but will only create more issues in the long run.

Another problem is that there is a lack of general recommendations for the Guelph populace.  Citizens may not have the woodlands over 1 hectare in their backyards but still have individual trees and plants that are worthy of protection.  The Strategy doesn’t have to enforce their preservation but it would be smart to at least inform home owners of the fact that they have significant species.  Here’s a case in point.  At 303 Edinburgh road there stands a burr oak so large that the power lines and sidewalk have to avoid it.  This is a beautiful tree and is recognized by GUFF (Guelph Urban Forest Friends).  That home was recently put on the market and just sold a few days ago.  There should be a policy that, at least, informs the new owner of the significance of this tree and the benefits to the homeowner of keeping this majestic individual alive.  I believe that there are many other ways, like this and more support for chemical-free and/or natural lawns,
that the population of Guelph can share in the restoration of our natural heritage through better communication.  We want to increase our forest cover that was so decimated up to 1950.

Thank you for your attention.

Terry Grignon, M.Sc. (Forest Ecology)


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