by Theresa Peluso

According to Wikipedia: “Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources.  The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment, economics, health, property, information, theology, etc.”

The land we own is protected by common law and statute law, but one of the difficulties in establishing an absolute right to this land is that doing so could negatively affect society.  This is where the concept of land stewardship enters the discussion. For example, if one is permitted to pollute the soil, water and air on his/her land, or alter the terrain as he/she pleases, this not only harms the health and well-being of one’s neighbours, as well as the integrity and property values of adjacent land; it also violates the concept of good land stewardship, the moral obligation to ensure that the benefits offered by our natural environment are available to everyone, in perpetuity.

Nature provides countless opportunities for sport and enjoyment to millions of people. If you like to fish and hunt, for example, you need suitable habitat for these animals.  That is why groups like Ducks Unlimited Ontario are so committed to protecting wetlands, necessary for waterfowl to raise their young and to provide vital stopover areas for about 10 million ducks and geese to refuel during their twice-a-year migrations through Ontario.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters supports protection of the province’s 250,000 lakes and countless rivers and streams to preserve the variety of fish available in healthy quantities.  They point out that recreational fishing contributes more than $2.4 billion dollars every year to the province’s economy.  For that reason, they are actively involved in species restoration, habitat enhancement, and education and outreach to conserve healthy, sustainable wildlife populations. The same goes for hunting, which also generates billions of dollars for the province.

Another important reason for preserving natural habitat is to ensure that we have a bulwark against extreme weather events, which are happening more and more frequently.  An area with many wetlands and forests will provide protection against floods, landslides, droughts, and windstorms, and ensure the availability of clean water.  Wetlands act as giant sponges, slowly absorbing water and releasing it when necessary. They also slow down water’s momentum, thereby reducing soil erosion and enabling plants and trees to absorb the water more effectively. Not only that, but wetlands also filter the water, keeping toxins and excess nutrients out of the rivers and lakes.  Trees produce oxygen and purify the air, reduce soil erosion, and provide shade and shelter from wind.  If managed with care, trees can also be a long-term source of employment and income. Forests and wetlands don’t just benefit the person on whose property they are located; they are a benefit to the community.

These natural resources also benefit future generations. Two centuries ago, the area now known as Lanark County was covered in old-growth forests.  Just 100 years later, owing to extensive logging, burning and tree-clearing by the European settlers, this area ended up with with less than 10% forest cover.  Thanks to the Reforestation Act of 1921, passed by the provincial government to promote reforestation, development, and management of lands held by the counties, the forest cover in Lanark County increased to 58.1% by 1991.  That’s why most of the forests in this area today are between 80 and 120 years old. We, who have been born several generations later, can be grateful to the government of that day for the forests that surround us today.  We want to pass this natural heritage to our own children for them to enjoy as much as we do. The same goes for farmland. Not too far in the future, the earth will need to feed yet another billion people with the same amount of land, or less.

In recognition of the value provided by forests, fields and wetlands that are kept in their natural state, some organizations provide financial incentives. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) provides expertise, funding and incentives through several programs, such as the Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program (MFTIP), the Conservation Land Tax Incentive Program (CLTIP), and the Land Stewardship Habitat Restoration Program (LSHRP). The MFTIP offers a reduction in property taxes to landowners of forested land who prepare a plan and agree to be good stewards of their property. The CLTIP offers a reduction in property taxes to landowners who agree to protect the natural heritage feature(s) identified by OMNR on their land. The LSHRP offers eligible organizations support to undertake land stewardship and habitat restoration for biodiversity conservation. For more information about these programs, visit the OMNR website at www.mnr.gov.on.ca/en/business/cltip/index.html‎.

Ontario Nature (ON), a charitable organization representing more than 30,000 members and supporters and almost 150 member groups from across Ontario, works to protect wild species and wild spaces through conservation, education and public engagement. ON also has set up programs, such as ALUS (Alternate Land Use Services).  In ON’s words:

$3,487.  That is the estimated value PER HECTARE per year of ecological services provided by Ontario’s natural capital:  wildlife habitat, water filtration zones, carbon sinks, woodlands, grasslands and wetlands.  Much of this natural capital is found on Ontario farms.  ALUS represents a way to engage farmers and provide incentive payments for the valuable ecological goods and services they provide. Through ALUS, farmers receive payments to conserve and restore natural features such as wetlands, creeks, shorelines, native grasses and trees, and unique ecosystems like tall grass prairie and oak savannah. In this way, parcels of farmland are converted into habitat for wildlife.  Through this program, we have an opportunity to respond to the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss by engaging those who own and manage most of the land in southern and eastern Ontario.

ALUS is a national program with projects in PEI, Alberta, Saskatchewan and in five Ontario communities (Norfolk County; Grey and Bruce Counties; The United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry; the township of Bayham and The Town of Caledon). (You can find out more on their website at www.ontarionature.org/protect/habitat/ALUS.php.)

We all share a lot of the same wants and needs.  We all want to use our land as we see fit.  At the same time, we need to safeguard the common good by protecting our water, air and soil quality, as well as the resilience of our land to extreme weather events.  We also want to pass on a healthy, self-sustaining world to our heirs.  So let’s all be good stewards of our land, and make sure that when we benefit from it, we also consider the needs of others, both now and in the future.