A bill to support alternate land use and services

 By MPP Toby Barrett

This past summer I developed and introduced a Private Members Bill titled, An Act respecting a voluntary program for the alternate use of agricultural land and the production of ecosystem services on that land.

The proposed legislation recognizes the right of owners of agricultural land to set aside, voluntarily, any part of the land as fallow for either of the following two purposes: to establish, restore or preserve a natural ecosystem and to establish and maintain projects that produce services for natural ecosystems.

Natural ecosystems are essential for the survival of plants and animals. In Ontario, and throughout much of the world, natural ecosystems are disappearing.

As humans, we also have an intimate relationship with the land on which we live and are bound to the earth. From it, we derive necessities of food, shelter and clothing. From the materials of the earth we have always derived, and will continue to derive, the tools and products to maintain our existence.

Owners of agricultural land, and other property owners, can contribute to the establishment, restoration, and preservation of natural ecosystems. This proposed legislation is essentially a statement of support for the concepts and principles of setting aside marginal land. The bill recognizes owners of land who wish to support these goals by participating in voluntary, farmer/landowner-led, incentive-based program on two fronts.

Firstly, they can set aside part of their land for that purpose. For example, they can restore wetlands, reforest, plant windbreaks, install riparian buffers, build sustainable drainage systems, create wildlife habitats and establish other ecologically beneficial projects on their land.

Secondly, they can use their land to establish and maintain projects that produce ecosystem services. Those services are the things that are produced by healthy natural ecosystems and on which all-living beings, whether human life, animal life or plant life, rely. They include clean air, clean water, healthy soil, flood mitigation, climate adaptation, carbon sequestration and wildlife habitats.

If this proposed legislation becomes law, the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry has 12 months to develop a provincial framework and action plan that does things such as the following. It can provide guidelines on how land can be used for those purposes, provide for the government to create and distribute standardized education materials on those guidelines, promote research into those uses of agricultural land, promote the holding of international symposia on those uses, and encourage fundraising for those uses and those symposia.

The Minister can amend the provincial framework and action plan to update it, as the Minister considers advisable.

This is important. Any legislation such as this must remain flexible and up-to-date – we live in rapidly changing times of not only new knowledge but also new understandings of knowledge – whether that knowledge is new or old.

Facts are needed to answer questions and develop new approaches to a host of environmental issues that range from soil degradation to loss of diversity to phosphorus loading to changes in climate.

Hence, the importance of on-the-ground experience, evidence-based research, and the working-together of all concerned to accomplish practical, common sense results. Government doesn’t have all the answers.

It is hoped this Ontario legislation can contribute to the underlying principles and objectives of the original farmer-driven, duck hunter-driven, habitat restoration ALUS approach first hatched in rural Manitoba.

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk