Oak Ridges Moraine
The Oak Ridges Moraine is a 160 kilometre long ridge of sand and gravel hills running along the northern part of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). It provides a direct source of clean drinking water to more than a quarter of a million people, and indirectly for millions more. The Moraine forms the headwaters for over 65 rivers and streams including the Don, Humber and Rouge and provides critical habitat for many species of animals already threatened by urban sprawl. Last but not least, the soils within the Oak Ridges Moraine are some of the most fertile in Canada, making it some of the countries best agricultural land.
Even with over four million people living nearby, the Oak Ridges Moraine is still 30 percent forested. There are so few large areas of forest left in southern Ontario that the Moraine is crucial for the survival of many threatened birds. All of these trees also play an integral role in filtering greenhouse gases and toxins from our air, acting as a lung for the GTA. Equally important, the Moraine has thousands of wetlands, including unusual kettle lakes and rare kettle bogs with plant species like the rose pogonia orchid that are usually found in northern Ontario. Some drier upland areas have prairie plants like wild lupine and big bluestem grass, pointing to the vast levels of biodiversity supported by rare habitat areas that do not exist elsewhere in the Province.
Due to ongoing rapid growth in the GTA, more and more development has been affecting sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine ecosystems. While water naturally percolates through the Moraine’s permeable surface and makes its way into underground aquifers, as we continue to cover the Moraine’s surface with impermeable concrete, less water is able to make its way back into the ground. Similarly, developments replace valuable agricultural land, as well as wetlands, lakes, bogs, forested areas, and other important wildlife habitat on the Moraine. This reduces the Moraine’s ability to filter and store water, and destroys habitat that supports hundreds of plant and animal species.
Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act (ORMCA) and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (ORMCP)
Due to concerns about the ongoing threat of development on the Oak Ridges Moraine, Earthroots, along with S.T.O.R.M. (Save The Oak Ridges Moraine), The Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature) and Save the Rouge Valley System Inc. led the way to pressuring the provincial government into enacting the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act (ORMCA). The campaign was strongly supported by The Greater Toronto Services Board (representing all GTA municipalities), the Don Watershed Council, the Waterfront Generation Trust, the Conservation Authorities Moraine Coalition, 465 scientists and over 100 citizens groups across southern Ontario.
The ORMCA was passed in 2001, which established a six-month moratorium for development on the Moraine, allowing the Provincial government time to develop a plan to best protect the Oak Ridges Moraine. After extensive consultation with a number of different provincial ministries, key stakeholder groups, and concerned members of the public, the government created the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (ORMCP). Under the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, which establishes the need for protection on the moraine, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan lays out the actual measures of protection for what will be allowed and what will not be allowed for different areas on the Moraine.
The ORMCP divides the Moraine into four different land use designations, which all have their own separate protection measures. Quoting the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing:
• Natural Core Areas (38% of the Moraine) protect those lands with the greatest concentrations of key natural heritage features which are critical to maintaining the integrity of the Moraine as a whole. Only existing uses and very restricted new resource management, agricultural, low intensity recreational, home businesses, transportation and utility uses are allowed in these areas.
• Natural Linkage Areas (24% of the Moraine) protect critical natural and open space linkages between the Natural Core Areas and along rivers and streams. The only uses that are allowed are those allowed in Natural Core Areas, plus some aggregate resource operations.
• Countryside Areas (30% of the Moraine) provide an agricultural and rural transition and buffer between the Natural Core Areas and Natural Linkage Areas and the urbanized Settlement Areas. Prime agricultural areas as well as natural features are protected. Most of the uses typically allowed in agricultural and other rural areas are allowed here.
• Settlement Areas (8% of the Moraine) reflect a range of existing communities planned by municipalities to reflect community needs and values. Urban uses and development as set out in municipal official plans are allowed.
While the ORMCA and ORMCP represent a huge victory for the environmental movement and Ontario’s environment, there are still a number of contentious issues surrounding what sorts of land use activities are acceptable on the Moraine. For more information about weaknesses in this legislation, and dangerous activities that are still being allowed in allegedly ‘protected’ areas, follow this link to Earthroots' Oak Ridges Moraine action alert.