Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities Posted on March 11, 2021 (updated: March 11, 2021)

Conserving Ontario’s intact wetlands is vital to protecting biodiversity

Ecojustice lawyer Laura BowmanLaura BowmanLawyer
Rainbow over a field at the Holland Marsh, in York Region, Ontario, Canada.
Photo by phot0geek via Flickr

When you think of Ontario’s landscape, you might picture soaring skyscrapers from some of the province’s busy cities, the rocky and mineral-rich Canadian Shield that lines much of the province or its hidden natural gem: Wetlands. 

The province’s wetlands serve many purposes. They act as water filtration, flood retention, erosion control, carbon storage, nutrient cycling and groundwater recharge. They also provide habitat for more than 20 per cent of the Ontario’s species at risk, including the Louisiana waterthrush.

Louisiana Waterthrush in water
Louisiana Waterthrush by Bill Majoros via Flickr

Despite the important role wetlands play for species habitat and communities, less than 30 per cent of the province’s original wetlands remain intact in southern Ontario. In the Niagara and Greater Toronto Area, that number drops even lower. 

These figures are alarming because as we know, shrinking natural spaces has a detrimental impact on species. 

According to WWF-Canada, between 1970-2016, species of global conservation concern have seen their populations decline by an average of 42 per cent in Canada. On a global scale, this number jumps to 68 per cent. Having intact natural spaces is one of the most important defences we have to protect biodiversity and prevent further loss of species. 

That’s why when the Ford government signalled that it would revive a previously cancelled highway project that would run through Simcoe County and York Region in Ontario’s northern Greater Toronto Area, the Ecojustice team knew we had to step up. 

In February, we helped our friends at Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, file a request asking Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson to designate the Holland Marsh Highway for a federal environmental assessment. An assessment would ensure scrutiny of the project’s contributions to Canada’s carbon emissions and impact on endangered species, migratory birds and aquatic life.

The proposed path of the Holland Marsh Highway, also known as the Bradford Bypass, will cross the old bed of the ancient Lake Algonquin through a portion of what is now the Holland Marsh, one of the most productive agricultural areas in the country. It will impact approximately 39 hectares of wildlife habitat and large areas of important wetlands that species depend on. It would also put added stress on the fragile ecosystem of Lake Simcoe at a time when the lake’s health is already threatened by development impacts, salt from the expanding road network, and excess nutrients. 

Map showing the proposed Holland Marsh Highway (Bradford Bypass) by Adam Ballah from Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition.

But none of these impacts are being considered by the provincial government. 

Instead it is relying on the project’s original environmental assessment, done more than two decades ago. To give you some perspective on how long ago that was, Titanic and the original Men in Black were among the top movies at the box office that year. 

So much has changed since then, including the enactment of two major land-use plans for the area, the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan and the Greenbelt Plan. Both planning policies work to ensure that the health of the region is a top priority and limits unnecessary development projects in important ecological areas, like wetlands. 

This isn’t the first time the Ford government has disregarded the environment in favour of a highway development project either. We also prepared a request for a federal environmental assessment for a second highway project, the GTA West, also known as the Highway 413.

What you can do to help

Studies have shown that building more highways does not lead to a reduction in traffic. Instead, it often leads to an increase in demand — meaning more traffic congestion and urban sprawl. 

We say the Holland Marsh Highway and the Highway 413 are bad news for Ontarians and the environment. Neither project should be allowed to move ahead without a federal environmental assessment that better looks at the impacts they will have on the environment, communities, and the climate.

Here’s how you can join us in trying to get these projects designated for a federal environmental assessment:

This blog was written with contributions from Venetia Jones, of Ecojustice’s communications team.

Build the case for a better earth

Thanks to the support of people like you, Ecojustice goes to court to protect what we value most — the air, land and water that sustains all life. Make your gift today and support bold litigation for a brighter environmental future.

Join our newsletter

Get updates on the most pressing environmental issues delivered straight to your inbox.