Credit: Rusty Clark; CC BY 2.0

On July 20th, the Government of Ontario released, A Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario, 2017 – 2030, setting the stage for an all-hands-on-deck approach to reversing the ongoing trend of wetland loss.

The long-term target is to achieve, by 2030, a net gain in wetland area and function where wetland loss has been the greatest. This is no easy task, considering the threats posed by climate change and the unrelenting pressure to pave over or drain the wetlands that remain. Getting there will require strong government commitment and investment, too often in short supply when it comes to protecting the natural world.

Still, the new strategy recognizes the critical importance of wetlands in protecting biodiversity and in climate change mitigation and adaptation. It includes solid commitments to engaging Indigenous communities in wetland inventorying, mapping and conservation efforts. And it specifies reasonable, short-term timelines for identifying priority areas (by 2018) and completing mapping and evaluation (by 2020).

The strategy also highlights the significant economic value of wetlands, providing a solid counter-argument to those who champion wetland destruction on the basis of short-term economic gain. Consider this:

  • Wetlands in southern Ontario alone provide Ontarians with over $14 billion dollars in benefits every year.
  • In urban and rural areas, wetlands can reduce the financial costs of floods by up to 38 per cent.
  • In the Great Lakes region the benefits that people receive from wetlands (e.g., clean water, recreational opportunities) are 13 to 35 times greater than the costs of protecting or restoring them.

This information provides a solid rationale for protection–there is no doubt where the public interest lies. Appropriately, the strategy also ensures that provincially significant wetlands and Great Lakes coastal wetlands will continue to be off limits to development. Current policy protections will be upheld as the government develops a new wetland offsetting policy.

Wetland offsetting? In a nutshell, it’s about compensating for the negative impacts of development through wetland restoration or creation. It’s risky business. On one hand, offsetting represents an opportunity to integrate the true environmental and social costs of wetland loss into development decisions. On the other, if the policy is poorly conceived, implemented or enforced, offsetting will open the door to further wetland loss. Read all about it in Ontario Nature’s brand new report, Navigating the Swamp: Lessons on wetland offsetting for Ontario.

Overall, the new wetland conservation strategy is a solid step in the right direction. But it’s a long-term game plan. Unless it is embraced by all political parties heading into next year’s election, it risks falling by the wayside. That’s why constant vigilance will be required from all of us to hold the current and future governments to account.

In the meantime, harmful algal blooms in the news this summer should serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the importance of retaining wetlands. Let’s get on with implementing the strategy!

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Anne Bell is Ontario Nature’s Director of Conservation and Education.