In a packed Renfrew County council chambers Friday, more than 60 people attended a fact-collecting forum on the impact of the Endangered Species Act.
Speaker after speaker condemned the act for its negative impact on the local economy, but perhaps none more so than Admaston-Bromley beef farmer and municipal councillor Michael Donohue.
He said the ESA often requires environmental assessment that results in finding no species at risk, but only potential habitat for species at risk.
“What I find most frightening about that is that I suspect every square inch of this province has potential habitat for something on this list (of species at risk),” said Donohue.
The beef farmer bristled when speaking about the apparent myth about opponents to the act. Anyone speaking up against this act, said Donohue sarcastically, is considered to be part of “some sort of rapacious enterprise that cares about nothing but the bottom dollar, and that’s absolutely not the case. I think everyone here is of the same mind as I am: This is my home and I want to see it flourish.”
Liberal, NDP and Progressive Conservative representatives, including Conservative MPP John Yakabuski, made brief statements at the outset of the nearly three-hour forum.
But the floor was mainly occupied by an avalanche of criticism from invitees to the afternoon session hosted by Renfrew County Warden Peter Emon and property and development director Paul Moreau.
The teeth of the act are the regulations, which county officials say need changing. The deadline for feedback to the province’s EBR (or environmental bill of rights) registry was Monday, Feb. 25.
“We had a great turnout,” said Moreau.
“Our warden was right when he said we had an opportunity (Friday) for different sectors of our economy to hear about the impacts that each other’s experiencing. So we’re not all in different silos here, and just thinking of our individual effects, but we now have a broader understanding of the issues that we’re all facing. And what’s come out is that they’re all very similar in nature.”
The hope, said Emon, is that the forum results in the county’s construction of a message that leads to constructive changes in the Endangered Species Act’s regulations.
He also thanked the forum’s participants for their restraint while speaking out about an act that he said is unfair.
Those impacts include huge planning-process delays, including such provincial restrictions or requests as environmental assessments, restricted windows for cutting in forested areas, and lack of flexibility in farmers’ hay harvesting guidelines.
One speaker was Leo Hall of Renfrew’s Opeongo Forestry Services, which for years has grown and harvested trees.
He said the act has had major impact on his timber business and on related real-estate development.
“The key (impact) as far as I’m concerned is cost, and the second most important one is uncertainty,” said Hall.
“The way we understand it, you need to have revenue a little bit higher than your costs, and what we’ve bee noticing during the past decade is it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to extract value from our products because of a whole bunch of a factors in the world market,” added Hall.
The net result in the past decade is a declining value of product by 10 to 50 per cent, or in some cases the total disappearance of the demand for products.
A way to deal with these declining values is to use more sophisticated machinery, but to make those machines effective investments, Hall says they have to run a high percentage of the time, but can’t because of restricted land access, as defined by the Endangered Species Act.
“I feel in my bones that this situation has gotten to the point where in forestry and in property development, we are gradually being pushed out of the global community of producing wood products and selling them competitively,” said Hall. “And we may very well be at the stage where the alternate use for this land, which could attract investment to the area, is becoming uneconomic as well.”
One of the most thorough speakers was Colin Mackinnon of Ben Hokum & Son Limited sawmill in Killaloe. He called the Endangered Species Act “another financial burden that will regulate us out of business.”
“Our forestry industry, as you know, has been struggling for five years,” he added. “(There are) lots of casualties. Those who are still operating are just hanging on by a thread.
“Now in the fourth year of the species-at-risk (legislation) we’re starting to see the full impact, and we’re at the tipping point. More and more, we’re seeing more American lumber cross the border, and we have to remain competitive (by lowering our prices).”
Over the past year, with increased activity by the Committee for Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), Mackinnon says the forestry industry has been more and more challenged.
The biggest factor is restricted access to its own timber supply, said Mackinnon.
“We have to sell our timber when the market wants it, but with the ESA we have a hard time doing that … We don’t want to be cutting our spring operating areas in the winter. We have a lack of flexibility,” he said of the company’s provincially-approved five-year cutting plan.
“We’re losing area, we’re losing volume, due to species at risk (regulations). There are reserves on waterways, creeks, woodland pools, ponds that are removed from our harvest. At times, this will make small blocks unaffordable to harvest. Even for larger blocks, with little sections that are blocked off, we have to move in and out due to timing restrictions, (so) we may have a difficult time cost-wise to go back and harvest.”
Restricted harvesting blocks may also negatively impact the local industry’s ability to respond to mounting product demand at certain times of the year, said Mackinnon.
He also said that the legislation has resulted in additional costs to create off-season roads, to accommodate species at risk, at increased costs since roads once built with two or three inches of gravel must now be built with two or three times that amount.
Tom Richardson of the Ontario Forestry Industry Association, said “we could live with onerous restrictions if there were truly rare (species at risk), but they’re everywhere.”
Ontario Federation of Agriculture vice-president Debra Straathof of Arnprior suggested a few changes to the legislation. These include more ministerial oversight so the species at risk committee doesn’t wield all-encompassing power, and adding a person with agricultural background to CASSARO.
MPP Yakabuski said his party would review how appointments are made to CASSARO and restore the natural resources minister’s right to have the final say on committee decisions “because unfortunately you have a board (CASSARO) that does not represent you.
“In fact, they represent everything that is the opposite of what your needs are, and when they make determinations they’re answering the call of the people who elect them to their various environmental organizations. So it’s a very tilted relation today, and that has to change.”
There were about two dozen presenters at the forum that lasted nearly three hours. They included Kerry Clouthier of Clouthier Construction, planner Brian Whitehead of Jp2g Consultants Inc., Lauretta Rice of the National Farmers Union, forester Ed Heideman of Lavern Heideman & Sons Ltd. in Eganville, Larry McTaggart of Bancroft Area Forest Industry Association, and Don Baxter of Northern Graphite mine near Bissett Creek.
Each said the Endangered Species Act is reducing profit margins by creating more delays in the planning or production process.
The purpose of the forum, according to a pre-forum news release from Renfrew County, was to emerge with “positive and reasonable solutions, and alternative mechanisms, to the costly and unworkable mechanisms contained in the ESA, and to deliver these recommendations to the Province of Ontario.”