The Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority says proposed changes to the Conservation Authorities Act in Ontario could hurt its ability to maintain trails, offer educational programming and provide other amenities on its six conservation areas.
The province began its review of the role of Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities nearly two years ago, but the “sweeping” proposals tucked inside an omnibus budget bill last November sent shock waves through conservation authorities.
The legislation would affect budgets, boards of directors and also redefine the core and non-core mandates of conservation authorities.
Sally McIntyre of the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority says there could be a direct impact on conservation areas such as the Mill of Kintail in Mississippi Mills.
“We have an extensive trail network, washrooms, directional signage, a picnic shelter and the Gatehouse used by community groups,” McIntyre said.
“As with the museum, none of those amenities are to be eligible for the base municipal levy going forward.”
McIntyre’s conservation authority is responsible for the Mississippi and Carp river watersheds.
Outlining core and non-core services
The new law would mandate municipalities to provide money for core services on conservation areas, but opt out of non-core services like trails, educational programming and private land stewardship projects, such as tree planting and stream rehabilitation.
The provincial group Conservation Ontario is mainly concerned with land stewardship programs because they’re critical in maintaining healthy watersheds, according to general manager Kim Gavine.
She said the changes also exclude recreational and educational facilities from the list of mandatory services, but it’s still unclear exactly what constitutes “recreational” and whether that would include passive hiking trials, for example.
“Some of our conservation areas saw double visitation rates at the beginning of the pandemic so it’s critical that these conservation areas are maintained,” said Gavine.
“There could be circumstances if the conservation authorities are not able to generate revenue through a user fee or other mechanisms, they could face having to close those conservation areas.”
‘Really a dreadful thing’
Sean Norris brings his children to explore the trails at the Mill of Kintail multiple times each week. He said the trails need upkeep, but volunteers could also help take some responsibility.
“[I] like the idea of having somebody who is on the trails all the time and taking care of them and keeping them safe for our families,” Norris said.
Members of the Ramsey Women’s Institute have spent their summers serving tea on the lawn of the Mill of Kintail near the R. Tait McKenzie Memorial Museum twice per week.
Member Jill Moxley worries the museum will have to stop operating in the conservation area.
“It’s really a dreadful thing,” said Moxley, who believes the site is perfect for showcasing the history of McKenzie, a Canadian surgeon and sculptor, and his high school friend James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.
“I think the municipality and everybody in it would just be devastated if the museum did not keep going in this particular building,” she said.
Changes needed to improve ‘accountability’
The Ontario government released details of the proposed changes on the Environmental Registry of Ontario where it claimed the “changes will improve the governance, oversight and accountability of conservation authorities”, while allowing municipalities to have more say over how money is spent on conservation areas.
In an email, a spokesperson with the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said the province agrees recreational and education programs and services are important to local communities.
“These programs and services can continue, so long as the local municipality agrees to fund them, or conservation authorities can find the funding through other means,” wrote spokesperson Gary Wheeler.
Members of the public and conservation authorities have until June 27 to comment on what should be included in the list of mandatory programs and services.