Every year, countless acres of the Amazon Rain Forest are slashed and burned to make way for farmers who want to increase the acreage of their fields. Threatened and protected species of animals and plants are wiped out every year, while wetland areas are destroyed in defiance of a government strategy designed to protect the natural and irreplaceable heritage of the rain forest. Every year, the fringes of the rainforest are blanketed in smoke, signalling even more acres of a precious ecosystem have been lost.
We do the same thing in Chatham-Kent.
On August 23, Municipal Administration will present Council with the results of a study determining whether or not Chatham-Kent should join the rest of Ontario by implementing a tree-cutting bylaw regulating the clear-cutting of woodlots. Incredibly, Council’s support of a bylaw is not a slam dunk. Once again, Chatham-Kent is on the cusp of being 50 years behind the times.
What is a tree-cutting bylaw?
It’s actually a clear-cutting bylaw that is being discussed. Even though opponents of regulation are trying to frame the debate as Council getting involved in which individual trees can be cut, this is simply false. What Council is being asked to consider is putting in place a law that regulates clear-cutting, essentially bulldozing and burning, woodlots. Not many people are interested in micromanaging lumber harvesting or clearing trees that have fallen or are sick. This is about stopping the wholesale destruction of entire stands of trees.
Chatham-Kent is one of only two major municipal areas without a tree-cutting bylaw. Municipalities around Ontario started implementing these types of regulations as early as the 1940s. Farming has still managed to thrive across the province. A similar by-law that regulates clear-cutting will not significantly harm the local farming industry.
But if it’s on their property, shouldn’t they be able to do what they want?
That’s a great argument if you live in the 1890s. Who has property, today, that a person “can do anything they want” on it? If you own a lot in the city, you have to get permits before you can put up structures or even a porch. Try to stop mowing your lawn all summer and see where that gets you. Maybe pile up about 20 derelict cars in your backyard and see how well that goes. You can’t, because there are zoning laws that say how you can and can’t use your property.
Even in rural areas, there are laws. Start pouring all your used motor oil into your backyard pond and see what the neighbours say. When the windmills went up and the groundwater went bad, you didn’t hear anyone saying, “Property rights, they can do what they want!” Quite to the contrary, rural neighbours banded together and said water is a natural resource that needs to be protected. They were right, and it’s to the everlasting shame of our local government that those cries were not heard.
The remnants of the Carolinian Forest that once thrived in what is now Chatham-Kent needs to be preserved along with wetlands that have been identified as being unique and special. Those woodlots, while on private property, provide a unique habitat that benefits not only the plants and animals but the community as a whole as a natural heritage resource. It simply can not be justified that one individual can remove those resources with a snap of their fingers.
Clear Cutting in Progress in Chatham-Kent
Ok, but the owners of the woodlots are good stewards of the land, right?
If by “good steward” you mean that they follow the modern agricultural processes that reduce pollution, erosion and runoff, then yes, most farms are good stewards.
When it comes to woodlots, that is not always the case. There are a number of farms that have made the choice to protect their wooded and wetland areas. However, there is a minority that has not. When marginal increases in profit can be realized, down go the trees. Profits are fleeting, but that unique habitat is gone forever.
Farms also get sold and change hands. A family that protects a woodlot today might sell or pass on the property to someone else who does not value that natural heritage. Without a tree-cutting bylaw, the woodlots are in perpetual danger.
I thought Chatham-Kent has a Natural Heritage Implementation Strategy that farmers and organizations like the Kent Federation of Agriculture have pledged to follow.
In 2014, Council took up this issue but allowed it to be framed as a property-rights and urban vs rural issue. Council caved to narrow special agricultural interests and produced a weak “strategy” where everyone held hands and promised that over the years they would work together and increase tree cover in Chatham-Kent from the 5% that existed then to 10%. They would double the percentage of tree cover.
Today, our tree cover stands at 3.5% and dropping. It is a failed policy. Enough members of the KFA have proven through their actions that the “strategy” does not work. Our municipal administration has proven that they do not have the desire to make this “strategy” work, either. Seven years of “implementation” has shown that politely asking people to protect our limited woodland resources does not work. It’s that simple.
We tried it the the “nice” way. We lost a significant amount of mature woodland that would take 50 years to replicate even if we start planting trees today.
Chatham-Kent’s Natural Heritage Implementation Strategy in Action
Alright, but this sure sounds like the city people picking on the farmers again, doesn’t it?
That’s not reality. Look at property taxes. Farms, where most woodlots would be located, are already eligible for a huge reduction in property taxes because they use fewer services. On average, agricultural lands are taxed at 25% of the rate for residential areas. In Chatham-Kent, Council has set that rate even lower at 23%, one of the best property tax rates in Ontario Yes, farmers do pay the full residential rate on their house and one acre surrounding it, but the rest of their land is taxed at a much lower rate. The difference between farmland and commercial land is even bigger, with commercial landowners paying a property tax of up to ten times more per acre than on an acre of farmland.
People in cities are also subsidizing things like lighting and policing. Chatham-Kent is about the only municipality that still area-rates services. It’s the idea that since certain areas need “less” services they should contribute less while ignoring the fact that it costs more per person to provide services to areas with less population density. If you live in an urban setting, you are paying three times as much for policing than in rural areas. This difference completely ignores the fact that it costs significantly more to provide the same level of service out in the countryside.
So no, it’s not like the “city-folk” are out to screw over rural areas. Council has seen fit to continue the archaic area-rating model, which effectively means city dwellers continually subsidize services for people who live out in the country.
Surely, though, there is still some sort of unfairness in not being able to use acres of your property while still being required to pay taxes on them?
Most people in favour of a tree-cutting bylaw would be willing to compromise by providing some sort of economic remediation either through property taxes or other means. It is important enough to protect these remaining woodlots and wetlands that if we have to cough up a bit more money, it’s the price of doing business.
However, in the interest of being open and honest, farms are already given a discount on their woodlots. Programs already exist that exempt forested acreage from property taxes. Farmers are good at business. Those with woodlots most likely are already receiving exemptions for their woodlots. If you want to know more about this complex issue, you can see the programs for yourself.
Here, though, is an easy one from MPAC. “In an effort to protect wooded areas, farmers with farm property or farm property holdings with wooded areas may qualify for the Farm Forestry Exemption (FFE). If you qualify, the tax exemption applies to one acre of forested land for every ten acres of farmland. It cannot exceed 20 acres in any one municipality.”
Farms already get a lot of property tax exemptions. Anything else that is provided will be in addition to what they already get.
How do I get involved?
The best way is to call or email each Councillor in your Ward. Mass emails and form letters do not get their attention. You should identify yourself, that you live in their ward, and that you support a by-law that will prevent the clearcutting of woodlots. You can also follow along on Facebook by searching #ckforestdender and on the CK Woodlot Preservation page. Here you will see that there are a number of farming families out there that want a by-law too. It’s a great place to get information and you can find links to dig deeper if you want.
It would be nice if Chatham-Kent could become known as a provincial leader in areas such as homeless housing or maybe in fighting the opioid crisis. Instead, we find ourselves nearly in line with the renegade farmers of the Amazon, allowing our limited and irreplaceable natural heritage to be destroyed so a very few people can see a few more dollars in their pocket.
How is this for a billboard on the 401: Welcome to Chatham-Kent, The Municipality with the least shade in all of Ontario.
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