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Redefining Conservation is the Ontario Environmental Commissioner’s annual report for 2009/ 2010. The report is full of good advice on the usual themes, including the chronic shortage of resources for environmental protection, the many ways that our land use planning fails to protect habitat and species, and the need for much greater commitment to energy conservation. The ECO’s persistent needling has provoked the Ministry of the environment to take some much-needed action, such as making a list of old, poorly regulated landfill sites (at least now they have a list) and starting to think about climate change in its standards for stormwater management (they don’t have a list of stormwater systems, or an assessment of how they will cope with climate change). But the list of other things the MOE should be doing just continues to grow.

One useful feature of this year’s report (see page 41) is a look back at the consequences of past attacks on “government waste and duplication”. One of the many government programs cut in the 1980s and 1990s was a program to support tree planting in Ontario, including specialized public nurseries that grew local stock. Privatize them! was the demand, and privatized they were; only one provincial tree seed bank was spared. Did it matter? According to the Commissioner, Ontario desperately needs to plant huge numbers of appropriate native trees, to fight climate change, to protect watersheds, and to protect biodiversity. We were very good at this for a hundred years; now great effort produces comparatively feeble results. Prior to the 1980s, an average of 20 to 30 million trees per year were planted in Ontario through afforestation programs. Today, on average, three million trees are planted annually. MNR got lots of ink in 2007 for promising 50 million trees by 2020, but it actually means only a slight uptick to 3.8 million trees a year. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we need, and compared to what we used to do before cutting “government waste”. Volunteer tree planting is important, but an order of magnitude too small. Carbon credits might help, if they become available for forestry, but that would be just another piece of poorly coordinated government policy. Even when volunteers want to plant trees, they often cannot get native seedlings,

For over 100 years, the provincial government was heavily involved in reforestation and afforestation initiatives; its withdrawal … has had a significant impact on the landscape. When MNR guided afforestation initiatives in the province, more trees were planted, plantations were larger and native seedlings were readily available and affordable through provincial nurseries. Fewer trees are now planted, plantations are smaller and the availability of native seedling stock is inconsistent….

To reach 30% tree cover, the recommended  target, would take a billion more living (native)  trees. At only 3.8 million trees planted a year, we’re not likely to ever get there. Sometimes, cutting “wasteful” government programs really will matter in the long run; this was one of them.

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