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Ontario needs to better protect biodiversity ahead of new strategy, past council chair says

Ontario's currently consulting on its next biodiversity strategy, and a past Biodiversity Council chair hopes speaking out encourages collaboration to 'advance progress on conserving nature'
Delegates take souvenir photos during a snowfall outside the convention centre at the COP15 UN conference on biodiversity in Montreal on Dec. 16, 2022.

Ontario's about to get the ball rolling on the next provincial biodiversity strategy, and a past chair of the council leading the plan hopes the government can work better with stakeholders to protect Ontario's environment, economy, and society. 

"The biosphere, healthy ecosystems, they sustain societies that create economies, not the other way around," said Steve Hounsell, past chair of Ontario's Biodiversity Council in an interview with The Trillium. "When you look at simply economic gain, at the expense of biodiversity, you are compromising the future resilience of ourselves as a society and of the rest of the planet." 

"We need to do a better job of conserving nature and right now, nature's losing. And that's certainly true globally," in Ontario, and more so southern Ontario, he said. "If we continue on a path where it's single focused, just looking at economic gain at the expense of nature, we are setting ourselves up for some rather bleak future outcomes."

The government is looking forward to digging in to the new strategy, according to a statement from the Ministry of Natural Resources. 

"The Strategy is a landmark product of the Council, which establishes a guiding framework for a whole-of-society approach to biodiversity management," Natural Resources Minister Graydon Smith's office said in a statement.  

"This helps coordinate and drive biodiversity conservation and management efforts from all sectors. As a founding member of the Ontario Biodiversity Council, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is encouraging all people to share their perspectives with the Council and help shape the future of biodiversity action in Ontario."

Past moves the Ford government has taken, including Bill 23, have hurt in that fight, said Hounsell, who is still on the council. 

"To date, they've actually set us back. They set us back years in terms of some of the policies and programs that they have cut or changed, so I'm hoping there will be a bit of an epiphany," he said.

"It's in our own self interest to do a much better job at conserving nature. And by the way, when you look at some of the recent things — in terms of Bill 23, as an example — it's hurting in terms of compromising all of the work we've done in the past to protect and restore wetlands," he said. 

Hounsell specifically mentioned Bill 23's rollback of conservation authorities' powers, ending the 50 million trees program, cutting funding to programs that fight the spread of invasive species, and other spending cuts. 

Despite the criticism, Hounsell was adamant that he sees the government as a key partner in protecting biodiversity and doesn't want his words to turn the Progressive Conservatives off of collaboration. 

"I also am very aware that the last thing I want to do is to alienate this government. We need government action. We need government support," he said. "I'm speaking my candid views. I don't want to have the government see this, or see me and (the) council as a threat."

Rather, he hopes the government sees this as an opportunity to "advance progress." 

"I'm hopeful that the government sees that there's an opportunity here to work with a number of organizations that understand the importance of doing this, that would be very pleased and willing to work with government to help advance progress on conserving nature for all the benefits that it provides for all of us," he said. "And we are hopeful that indeed, they see the need to do this."

The provincial government is currently consulting on an update to its biodiversity strategy. There's a consultation document open to any Ontarian on the website. It lists 13 different areas the strategy could target, and asks respondents questions based on those targets, like how important each target is and how best to go about achieving them. 

Ontario's first strategy came in 2005, and was last updated in 2011. The Biodiversity Council was born out of the first strategy. 

The last strategy was published in 2011 and meant to guide biodiversity policy until 2020.

Part of the reason the council has waited this long to renew the strategy is there's been a lot of work done on an international level, and they wanted to wait until that was done before jumping headlong into a new provincial strategy, Hounsell said. The next iteration will guide policy out to 2030. 

The strategy isn't simply a plan the government writes and unilaterally administers. Rather, the government — through the department of natural resources — is one stakeholder among many sitting on the Ontario Biodiversity Council. It includes industry, Crown corporations, academia, Indigenous groups. All together there's over 40 different individuals and groups that make up the council. 

The Ministry of Natural Resources also acts as a secretariat for the council, Hounsell said, through organizing meetings and other administrative tasks. While the government doesn't do all the administering work, it does play a role by taking the lead on some of the action items in the strategy itself, he said. 

"The question is, will the current government actually respond to the renewed strategy?," Hounsell asked. He hopes to have it out around May 22, to coincide with World Biodiversity Day. 

It's his hope the ministry will still be responsible for taking the lead on a number of action items that come out of the new strategy, he said. 

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