SD&G exploring controls to halt depleting forest

In this December 2017, file photo, the morning sun shines on the United Counties of Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry building on Pitt Street in Cornwall, Ont. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston, File)

SD&G – The United Counties is looking at a broad set of tools, including land control laws, in a bid to stop the dwindling forest cover.

SD&G Planner Alison McDonald presented the plan to a committee of the whole session of county council this morning (Thursday).

“The balance is shifting…perhaps shifting too far,” McDonald said, noting the cover had dropped below 29 per cent in 2014 and below the widely-held benchmark of 30 per cent.

Part of the problem, McDonald explained, is land owners are secretly clear-cutting forest or filling in wetlands ahead of applying for a permit to build a subdivision or proceed with other developments. “Landowners are getting savvy,” knowing there are few people on the ground to catch them.

Spotting changes in the forest cover is also a challenge because aerial mapping is usually four years old by the time the county receives it. “I think we’re overstating (the amount of forest cover) right now,” she said.

The five point plan includes a possible research project for a university student, updated mapping of the forest, bylaw controls on cutting trees and a Natural Heritage Study.

As for laws, a possible site alteration bylaw, would prevent removing trees in certain areas and also protect the edges of waterways.

A couple of councillors noted that the county could receive a lot of push back from farmers, as nearly 90 per cent of the forests cleared right now in SD&G are for farming. “You’re going to get tremendous resistance,” Coun. Bill McGimpsey noted.

The county has bought at least 9,000 acres of land in the past but there has been no formal protocol or plan in place to buy land, McDonald explained. This could also be a way to preserve the canopy.

Coun. Jim Bancroft said he wished there had been tools in place after a massive clear-cut along the Highway 401 corridor in South Stormont.

Coun. Tammy Hart was “disgusted” when she saw farmland being worked, right up to the waterline on the river, while on a canoeing trip.

The consensus from council was to start the research on all five points of the plan. Coun. Eric Duncan suggested the same presentation be given to local Federations of Agriculture and other stakeholder groups.

Duncan also threw out the idea of giving tax receipts on the best possible use of forested land as an incentive to keep the trees.

“Why do we collect property taxes from forests?” he added, noting that forested land isn’t a burden on municipal services like fire and ambulance or roads.

County staff will start their research with in-house resources. There’s no money identified yet for the project but will likely be addressed in the 2019 budget.