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Our Common Future (Revisited)

By Dr. Anne Bell,
The Professional Forester,
June 2017

Thirty years ago the World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future and championed the concept of sustainable development. The book made the case that “development cannot subsist upon a deteriorating environmental resource base,” a perfect premise or the integration of Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) and Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA). Recovering species at risk is an essential ingredient of truly sustainable development.

We only have one Earth, and our responsibility is to learn how to live sustainably and equitably in ways that allow all life on the planet to flourish. Yet, as a society, our consumption of resources is anything but sustainable and equitable. If everyone consumed at the rate that we do in Ontario it would take 3.7 planet Earths to support humanity.

One of the clearest symptoms of our unsustainable patterns of consumption is the decline of biodiversity worldwide. We are in the throes of a mass extinction the like of which has not been seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We are losing species at 10 to 100 times the normal rate, and human activity is the primary cause.

Since 1976, when scientists first started assessing the status of species in Canada, well over 700 have been listed as at risk. During that time, only 20 have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list.

The passing of the ESA ten years ago, with all party support in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, was intended to respond directly to our shared responsibility to prevent species loss. In light of that commitment, what does the integration of the CFSA and the ESA need to accomplish?

When integrating these two laws, I believe we need to prioritize the recovery of species at risk. For these species, we are past the point of balance. Many species’ populations continue to decline, despite management efforts, and some are now facing extirpation.

I have many concerns with the Ontario government’s proposed approach to integrating the ESA and the CFSA. First, the draft prescriptions are riddled with loopholes and exceptions to the protections that the ESA is supposed to offer to species at risk and their habitats. Second, mitigation of harm often trumps avoidance of harm – even though the ESA is based on avoiding harm to species and their habitats. Third, the protection of habitat is inadequate and focuses on Areas of Concern rather than on the areas species depend on to carry out their life processes. Finally, the ESA requirement to provide an overall benefit to a species in situations where harm occurs is not consistently upheld.

Overall benefit is a basic premise of the ESA. In a nutshell, harm to a member of a threatened or endangered species or its habitat is allowed to occur only if actions are undertaken to compensate for the harm and provide an overall benefit to the species. Achieving an overall benefit is different from minimizing harm, which simply entrenches decline. Overall benefit is about getting a species on the path to recovery, as the MNRF graphic below illustrates (from Endangered Species Act Submission Standards for Activity Review and 17(2) c Overall Benefit Permits, February, 2012, p. 3).

I recognize that the forestry industry and forestry-dependent communities face many urgent challenges. Together, Ontarians need to find solutions to these challenges. But the solutions need to be sustainable. Watering down the ESA does not fit the bill if we are genuinely committed to species recovery. Our collective challenge is to bring forward real solutions that serve the long-term interests of communities and the natural world, of which we are a part. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) voluntary certification system is one such solution. It brings Indigenous peoples and stakeholders to the table to ensure that certified forests are managed according to strict social and environmental standards. Protecting species at risk is built right into the requirements.

We need more than this, of course. The big question is whether the will exists to develop sustainable solutions for communities that will also serve to protect and recover species at risk.

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