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By Justina Ray, WCS Canada, and Anastasia Lintner, Canadian Environmental Law Association
When Hurricane Hazel hit Southern Ontario in 1954, the creation a decade earlier of Conservation Authorities with a mandate to protect watersheds turned out to be a farsighted move.
Now, with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events driven by climate change, the flood control work of these authorities has never been more important. But Conservation Authorities were originally conceived with a much broader mandate. Their job was to halt and reverse the damage done to watersheds by indiscriminate forest clearing and poorly planned development and to return these watersheds to health.
Conservation Authorities play a vital role in maintaining the health of waterways in the heavily developed Southern Ontario landscape. Credit: Maitland Conservation Authority.
This watershed health part of their mandate is just as relevant – perhaps even more so – today as it was in 1946 when the Conservation Authorities Act was first passed. But this work is currently under threat as the provincial government seeks to limit the ability of authorities to get funding from municipalities to support their watershed science and stewardship work (more on the importance of this work in this primer). This is the very essence of “penny wise, pound foolish” decision making as the work done by conservation authorities to monitor and maintain the health of entire watersheds has never been more relevant – or necessary.
In fact, the holistic approach taken by authorities is one we should be emulating much more widely – not curtailing. Their holistic view of natural systems – caring for an entire watershed – is quite different from the fragmented and siloed approach of so many of our decision-making processes. In a world where piecemeal planning and individual project approvals often ignore both cumulative and regional impacts -- thereby leading to “death by a thousand cuts” outcomes and feeding a growing biodiversity crisis -- these agencies have the ability to step back and consider the whole.
And that matters in the current COVID environment, where the links between natural area degradation and viral spillover events has been well documented by scientists. We may think we are a long way from Wuhan’s wildlife markets that sparked the current COVID outbreak, but we have created similar problems through our own actions.
Take Lyme disease, for example. Hosts of the bacteria that triggers the disease, such as white-footed mice, thrive in deforested areas that have been fragmented and disturbed by human development. It is no wonder that we have seen a big surge in Lyme cases over the last couple of decades as we have pushed subdivisions up against (and into) forests, replaced forests with lawns and expanded cropland, leaving highly imbalanced natural systems in the small and isolated natural areas that remain.
By prioritizing the needs of the development industry and treating the work of conservation authorities as a “regulatory burden,” as the current government seems inclined to do, we risk losing sight of the importance of protecting the ecological integrity of watersheds.
Conservation Authority staff work on a natural habitat restoration project in an agricultural area. Credit: Maitland Conservation Authority.
That is dangerous because if we have learned anything from the COVID crisis it is that we are not superhuman. We rely on the integrity of natural systems for many services and, fundamentally, to ensure our health and economic wellbeing. Scientists call this concept “One Health” and it offers a framework for the kind of more integrated decision making that we desperately need now – decision making that does not just look at short-term profits, but also at long-term ecological and health impacts.
In particular, by applying the One Health Framework, Conservation Authorities can help prevent future outbreaks of infectious diseases from wildlife by keeping natural areas healthy and by working with health agencies to monitor and reduce threats. The One Health approach, with its focus on a Healthy Environment, Healthy People and Healthy Wildlife, brings an integrated approach to addressing pathogen spillover and other risks that is much needed today.
Undermining the work of Conservation Authorities at this critical moment is like once again clearing forests off hillsides and building homes in floodplains right before a hurricane hits, but this time the stakes are even higher and include the risk of infectious disease outbreaks. We have too often lost sight of the importance of healthy natural systems to a healthy world in recent times. The current crisis is an excellent reminder that we do that at our peril.
Photo credits: Banner | Lila Tauzer © WCS Canada