The dealings between democracies and dictatorships— especially regimes that do not protect the environment—sometimes result in the corruption of the democratic states. I have seen this happening since 2008 while working to protect a large wetland in the Niagara Region. The soil there is heavy clay, laid down on both sides when Lake Tonawanda (a much larger version of Lake Erie) vanished 5,000 years ago.
The Carolinian zone is Canada’s greatest haven of biodiversity, but only tiny fragments of it are left. The largest tracts in southern Niagara are in the wetlands of vanished Lake Tonawanda. The mucky clay soils there are unsuited for agriculture, so it became a refuge for diverse forms of wildlife in its swamp forests. Here vernal pools in the spring form, lined with water-tolerant pin oaks, where great masses of amphibians breed.
The Ontario government’s policy is to protect wetlands from site alteration. The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks chooses wetlands, the key criterion being the accumulation of 600 points, by professional ministry wetland evaluators, mainly based on the presence of rare wetland species.
The ministry recognized the importance of Lake Tonawanda wetlands (the Niagara Falls Slough Forest) by noting the presence of the rare blue spotted salamander and the chorus frog. Although nationally threatened, the chorus frog is abundant in the Lake Tonawanda wetlands. In the spring a symphony of frog calls are heard, with the chorus frog, spring peeper, wood frog, and tree frog, followed in summer by green frogs, leopard frogs, and bull frogs.
The Thundering Waters area is an astonishing refuge to rare species, including the Acadian Flycatcher, barn swallow, three species of bats, two species of turtles, the threatened Dense Blazing Star, and the rare orchid, the Great Plains Lady’s Tresses.
For a decade the most intense political battles of my life have been to protect the wetlands of Lake Tonawanda. These have been challenged first by a motor-racing corporation based in Dubai and, second, by a mainland Chinese development corporation, which wants an urban development in the Niagara Falls Slough Forest Wetland complex.
The racing company is the Canadian Motor Speedway, which has been attempting for almost twenty years to build in Fort Erie. The Chinese development company is GR Canada, which has been seeking for four years to construct a raceway like NASCAR.
Backers of the Canadian Motor Speedway in Fort Erie called for abolishing the provincial wetland policy and reviewing the policy at the provincial level. They failed, but the Speedway backers wrested an important procedural change at the Ontario Municipal Board (now called the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal).
At the OMB it was ruled that I, acting as an agent for the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS), could not call a qualified expert witness because of his membership in PALS. This ruling was overturned by the Chair of the Tribunal, resulting in another hearing, which delayed the project. Fortunately, the dwindling popularity of race car driving has helped prevent the project’s construction, though OMB approved it.
The fact that the wetland policy of Ontario was under review at the time made the purchase of the Thundering Waters Forest attractive to Chinese investors. The dispute evoked a conflict between Niagara politicians who supported the development and the professional staff of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, as documented in a report by Ontario’s Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk.
Lysyk condemned the attempt by the politicians to influence the Chief Executive Officer and strong-arm conservation biologists into supporting changes in wetland policy. The audit exposed an effort to set up a wetland offset scheme without sufficient study to determine whether Thundering Waters “contained unique features that cannot be replicated.”
The wetland policy was reaffirmed. However, the planning department of Niagara Falls suppressed two reviews, stating that forests in Thundering Waters would vanish, and two other studies. Our campaign is asking the Auditor General of Ontario Bonnie Lysyk to investigate these efforts to suppress vital information.
You can support our call for an audit with an email message to email@example.com.
John Bacher is an environmental activist in St. Catharines.