The Abdication of Natural Resources Management by MNR

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Eliminating services at select provincial parks. Gutting a long-standing youth summer learning program. De-regulating certain types of resource use activities. Reducing support for local stewardship initiatives. Downsizing the role of science in natural resource management. Eliminating some protections for at-risk species. All of these have one thing in common: they are all happening in Ontario as part of the Ministry of Natural Resources’ (MNR’s) three-year “transformation plan.”

First announced in the 2012 provincial budget, the MNR transformation plan is the ministry’s strategy to “make it easier, faster and more efficient for businesses and individuals to access services, set the ministry on a sustainable fiscal path, and contribute to balancing Ontario’s budget by 2017/18.”

The ministry maintains that its transformation measures, which have been rolled out periodically since spring 2012, can be undertaken while it continues to protect and sustainably manage natural resources. However, the ECO is extremely concerned about the implications of some aspects of the plan that cast doubt on both the ministry’s willingness and its ability to responsibly manage and protect the province’s natural resource treasures.

The Transformation Package

MNR initially indicated that it was looking to reduce approximately 10 per cent of its annual budget, or about $70 million, over the next three years. Those cost savings would come from reducing staffing and operating costs, as well as from cutting funding for ministry partners.

The transformation plan consists of four main components:

  1. The Streamlining of Approvals Processes – Modernize approvals, including changes to regulations and legislation.
  2. Operations Delivery Transformation – Redesign some programs and improve the efficiency of operations throughout the province.
  3. Stewardship and Partnership Funding Alignment – Take a more strategic approach to partnerships, with transfer payment funding aligned to core ministry business and priorities.
  4. Science and Information Rationalization – Shift the focus from individual species to broader ecosystems and realign key science functions.

In response to the ECO’s request for a copy of the transformation plan itself, MNR stated, “we do not have a publicly shareable transformation document that we are able to provide in response to your request.”

The First Step: Sweeping Amendments to MNR Legislation

The first evidence of MNR’s transformation came in spring 2012 in the form of sweeping – and troubling – amendments to seven MNR-administered acts in the provincial budget bill, the Strong Action for Ontario Act (Budget Measures), 2012 (Bill 55). Among other things, the Bill 55 amendments effectively enable:

  1. the outsourcing of many ministry decision-making powers to third parties at the discretion of the Minister of Natural Resources;
  2. the weakening of requirements and prohibitions related to fish and wildlife management, including unlimited discretion to make regulations exempting persons from the need to obtain a hunting licence;
  3. decreased government oversight of activities on Crown lands; and
  4. loosened rules around management direction for provincial parks, extending deadlines so long as to render management direction irrelevant and unable to meet the intent of the legislation.

In addition, Bill 55 originally contained proposed amendments to the Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) and to the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, 1994 (CFSA), including:

  • creating exemptions that would permit the harming of species at risk and their habitats;
  • doubling legislated timelines for developing recovery strategies for endangered and threatened species and for the government to respond to completed strategies;
  • delaying the provision of regulated habitat protection for many species;
  • eliminating the requirement for forest management plans in an unlimited set of circumstances;
  • allowing for an unlimited extension of the terms of forest resource licences; and
  • allowing for unlimited exemptions of forest operations from certain requirements of the ESA.

The proposed amendments to the ESA and CFSA were harshly criticized by stakeholders and were deleted following the bill’s referral to a standing committee. While those proposed changes were not passed into law under Bill 55, the government signaled its intent to revisit them at a later date. Indeed, regulatory amendments under the ESA made in May 2013 accomplished, in part, what the government attempted to do under Bill 55.

Bill 55 was not subject to the usual public notice and consultation requirements of the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 (EBR) because proposals that form part of, or give effect to, a budget are exempt (see Part 2.2 of this Annual Report).

Program Changes

In spring 2012, a transformation initiative made changes to MNR’s Bear Wise program, the ministry’s public awareness, reporting and response program for reducing human-bear conflicts. Without consulting the public, MNR reduced the number of staff working on the program and announced that it would no longer provide assistance in cases of site-specific conflicts with bears, nor would it trap and relocate problem bears. By default, the Ontario Provincial Police and local police departments often have become responsible for confronting bears that wander into urban/suburban areas; where problem bears may have been relocated in the past, they are often shot today.

It Could Happen: The Nightmare Scenario
MNR’s transformation initiatives are extremely troubling: not just for what has been done to date, but because the broad legislative changes implemented through Bill 55 could have profound consequences for the future. The amendments are so broadly permissive that they allow the ministry to implement an almost infinite range of additional and unanticipated changes. The ministry intends to leave the details of (and limitations on) many of these changes to forthcoming regulations; while giving itself wide latitude for future action, MNR is also creating great uncertainty about the breadth and actual intent of the possible effects. The implementation of these amendments may start out relatively benign, but could readily escalate to more far-reaching changes that would effectively create a whole new regime for natural resource management in Ontario – one that no longer even purports to prioritize the protection and conservation of natural resources.

As a result of the Bill 55 amendments, this or any future government could wholly redefine Crown land use and natural resource management. For example, the new delegation of power provisions potentially could be used to outsource Crown land and natural resource management, in its entirety, to private third party entities that do not have the long-term conservation and protection of Ontario’s natural resources as their foremost priority; this has occurred in other jurisdictions such as with the Alberta Energy Regulator. This should be a particular concern to residents of northern Ontario, where large tracts of land, unencumbered by a formal planning regime, could conceivably be handed over to the exclusive control of large multinational corporations – resulting in an unprecedented transformation of the way of life in that region.

The failed attempt, through Bill 55, to amend the CFSA illustrates the government’s intent to create unlimited opportunities to distance itself from regulating forest management activities. MNR’s regulatory amendments for species at risk, adopted in May 2013, are equally illustrative of the government’s desire to dilute aspects of that environmental law to the point that it becomes ineffectual and unable to meet its intended purpose.

Cumulatively, MNR’s transformation plan, with its various permissive and openended legislative and regulatory changes, together with the elimination of certain programs, could result in the nightmare scenario of a province in which Crown land and natural resources are largely de-regulated and no longer subject to the many existing protections that ensure the wise use of natural resources, the promotion of healthy and sustainable ecosystems, and the conservation of biodiversity. If the public interest and the environment are not the priority, it begs the question, then, why and for whom is this transformation occurring?

In early summer 2012, MNR announced that it would be reducing funding for its Forest Access Roads Program – a business subsidy for the forest industry – from $75 million to $60 million in 2012. These savings would have made a significant contribution to the ministry’s transformation budget target. However, MNR informed the ECO that it has already committed to restoring this funding to its previous level in the future.

In late September 2012, MNR announced a number of additional transformation initiatives “to modernize its business and operate on a more cost efficient basis.” Among other things, these decisions – also made without notice on the Environmental Registry or other public consultation – include the following:

  • The management direction for 10 provincial parks with low visitation rates was changed to “non-operating” status, thus eliminating all services and facilities at those parks. (The ministry later reversed its decision for three of those parks; for more information, see Part 4.6.2 of this Annual Report.) In October 2012, MNR informed the ECO that three additional parks were slated to have their status changed in 2013; however, MNR advised the ECO in May 2013 that it had reversed this decision and that no more parks would be affected. MNR also eliminated its central administrative office in Arrowhead Provincial Park, reducing the Ontario Parks planning zones from six to five.
  • The overnight component of the Ontario Ranger Program was terminated. Since 1944, this program has provided students with summer employment working on stewardship activities in provincial parks. All 13 ranger camps would be closed and the program replaced with a local, day-based youth stewardship program.
  • Provincial funding for Ontario’s 45 community-based Stewardship Councils was terminated and the positions of the 45 stewardship co-ordinators tasked with supporting the councils eliminated. They would be replaced with 25 district “partnership specialists” to support a wider range of community groups (for more information about changes to Ontario’s stewardship model, see Part 3.3.1 of this Annual Report).

A Landscape Approach to Natural Resource Management

In November 2012, MNR posted a proposal on the Environmental Registry (#011-7540) for another key component of its transformation plan: a new policy framework that would shift the ministry’s approach to managing many natural resource-related activities and programs to a broader landscape scale. The ministry states that “ecological considerations and fiscal realities require us to reassess the best scales for the ministry’s natural resource management activities.” MNR describes its new approach as “implementing management actions in an integrated way, over larger areas of land and water, and over longer time periods than may currently happen in management systems or policy.”

MNR supports this proposed policy shift with examples of other jurisdictions that have adopted broader landscape approaches to natural resource management, as well as other Ontario strategic policies that embrace landscape-level planning. The ministry cautions that adopting a landscape approach does not negate the need for finer-scale management efforts in some situations (e.g., for specific sites, species, resources or activities), and that “effective landscape-scale management provides the guidance to allow finer-scale management to be nested within a broader strategic vision.” For example, MNR notes that rare, endangered or invasive species may require more detailed and specific management efforts within a broader management strategy.

MNR asserts that a landscape approach “promotes better understanding of how natural systems work and how they are affected by human activities.” The proposed framework is based on two goals: 1) to adopt a modern and sustainable approach to managing Ontario’s natural resources by managing over broader areas and longer time periods; and 2) to support, enable and advance ecosystem-based landscape management approaches in Ontario over time. The framework also has five elements: manage at appropriate scales; integrate and co-ordinate; assess, manage and mitigate risk; focus science and information resources; and manage adaptively. Under these elements, the framework lists 13 considerations to be used in applying the proposed approach to natural resource management.

MNR explains that its next step will involve examining its programs for “opportunities to consider broader landscape approaches throughout its areas of business.” As the ministry posted a decision notice for this proposal at the end of June 2013, outside of the ECO’s reporting year, the ECO will review this decision in a future annual report.

Approvals Modernization

In February 2013, following public consultation on the Environmental Registry (#011-6751), MNR announced that it will modernize its approvals process by streamlining many permits, licences and other authorizations issued under MNR’s legislation.

In brief, the ministry is redesigning its approvals process by applying one of four approaches to each type of approval, based on the impact of the activity:

  1. Eliminate some types of approval altogether from regulatory control;
  2. Eliminate some types of approval, but establish rules in regulations to govern those activities (i.e., “permit-by-rule”);
  3. Require approval for some activities through an electronic registry system; or
  4. Leave some approvals unchanged, but look for opportunities to use technology to improve delivery of those approvals.

To determine the most appropriate approvals process for any given natural resource-related activity, MNR explained that it will employ a “standard risk evaluation process that first considers the original purpose for having the current approval in place, as well as the best available information to identify any risks associated with the activity.” The risk evaluation process will involve an assessment of impacts on: public health and safety; natural resources; social and cultural uses of natural resources; government, public and private finances and the economy; and public expectations of government.

In December 2012 – before finalizing the modernization strategy – MNR had already posted three proposal notices on the Environmental Registry for regulatory changes that would, in part, implement the strategy. In May 2013, amendments were adopted for regulations under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997 (Environmental Registry #011-7663), and the Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) (#011-7696); amendments were still pending under the Public Lands Act (#011-7669). These changes and proposed changes undermine the oversight of certain aspects of wildlife management, the active management of Crown land and the protection and recovery of species at risk:

  • Municipalities no longer require provincial approval to hire or employ hunters or trappers to harvest fur-bearing mammals.
  • Proponents would no longer require work permits to undertake certain activities on Crown land, but would instead be subject to either permit-by-rule regulations or registration requirements.
  • A number of industry sectors and facilities (e.g., commercial forestry, waterpower facilities, aggregate pits and quarries, wind turbines, drainage works, roads and highways, rail lines, communication towers, hydro corridors, mineral exploration, land development, etc.) have been granted exemptions from the requirement to obtain a permit prior to harming at-risk species or damaging or destroying their habitat. Proponents in most cases are required only to minimize adverse effects (subject largely to their own discretion), instead of ensuring an overall benefit to the species and obtaining MNR’s approval.

For more detailed information about MNR’s plan for modernizing its approvals processes, see Section 1.16 of the Supplement to this Annual Report.

Ministry Reorganization

MNR is planning to eliminate one of its six divisions, the Science and Information Resources Division (which includes three branches), and to re-organize the remaining five divisions. The ministry states that it is: realigning the functions of the eliminated division into other divisions (e.g., by creating a new Science and Research Branch within the Provincial Services Division); shifting some functions, such as forest management planning and wildlife management, from the district/local level to the regional office level; and restructuring the Policy Division by reducing six branches into four.

Initially, MNR informed the ECO that staffing levels for science and information resources would be reduced; however, in May 2013, MNR informed the ECO that no scientists would be laid off. MNR asserts that, despite the re-organization, “science will remain an integral part of the ministry, with the ministry continuing to make decisions based on the best available science.” The ministry also eliminated 27 permanent and 95 seasonal staff positions in fall 2012, many of these as a result of the elimination of services in provincial parks, the downsized Ontario Ranger Program and the cuts to the Ontario Stewardship Program.

Budget Update in May 2013
In May 2013, coinciding with the release of the 2013 Ontario Budget, MNR’s deputy minister updated MNR staff on the transformation plan’s progress. Most notably, the 2013 budget saw approximately $40 million permanently “returned” to MNR’s base budget. Nonetheless, MNR explained to the ECO that “the ministry still has a structural deficit to address – albeit a less substantial one – and the government still needs to address the provincial debt.” The deputy minister stated that MNR will continue to move forward with an updated transformation plan.

Implications of Transformation

Cutting Costs Could be Costly

The ultimate goal of MNR’s transformation plan is to cut operational costs. By this measure, the plan will likely be a success. Some of the proposed cuts and changes to ministry programs, such as terminating mail-out reminders for Outdoors Card renewals, will likely save money without putting natural resources at risk.

Other cost-saving transformation initiatives, however, may impose far-reaching effects on the province’s natural resources. Enabling the Minister to delegate his powers – with no liability – to literally anyone, potentially allowing municipalities to take over wildlife management, creating exemptions from statutory requirements designed to protect wildlife and natural resources, and eliminating protections for some of the province’s most vulnerable species, could all lead to significant negative consequences for the province’s wildlife and natural environment.

Likewise, cuts to stewardship programs and services at provincial parks save money, but could be costly in other, less tangible ways. For example, cuts will limit the public’s ability to initiate or contribute to local stewardship activities that provide important benefits to the natural environment. Cuts also can make it more difficult for Ontarians to connect with – and develop a greater respect for – the natural world.

By eliminating programs and cutting costs, MNR will demonstrate that it is willing to operate on a reduced budget, potentially setting itself up to receive an even smaller share of provincial dollars in future years. The long-term costs – both environmental and fiscal – of providing insufficient funding to allow MNR to effectively manage the province’s natural resources could ultimately be far disproportionate to the savings.

MNR’s Risk-Based Approach Could Be Risky

A recurring theme in MNR’s transformation initiatives is the use of a risk-based approach to decision making. In particular, this approach is cited as a key tool in the modernization of MNR approvals, in the shift to a landscape approach to natural resource management, and in its operational delivery transformation.

While employing a risk-based approach is reasonable, the ECO is concerned that MNR has not explained how it will assess and weigh the various risks associated with any of these transformation initiatives. The outcome of a risk-based approach depends on the weight accorded each of the different factors considered. Without more details, it is uncertain whether MNR will consistently prioritize avoiding risks to natural resources over MNR’s desire for a more “sustainable fiscal path” or other considerations. In the context of approvals modernization, the fact that MNR has stated that it will assess, among other things, the risk to government, public and private finances and the economy, as well as public expectations of government, and that it will consider additional factors, such as “the need to balance public and private interests in the use of a public resource,” reinforces this concern.

Less Science and Research without a Science and Research Division

MNR insists that science will remain an integral part of the ministry; however, the elimination of a dedicated Science and Information Resources Division likely means that science will play a diminished role in the transformed ministry.

The ECO has commented in the past on MNR’s failure to deliver on core science and research functions, such as the lack of a wildlife population monitoring program despite a legal requirement to have one. MNR’s assurance that no scientists will be laid off during the restructuring of the ministry is a promising sign that the ministry is retreating, at least somewhat, from its plan to downsize the role of science at MNR. Nevertheless, despite the ministry’s avowal that it will continue “to make decisions based on the best available science,” the elimination of a division dedicated to science and research could still result in less available scientific expertise upon which to base its decisions. The lack of reputable and accessible scientific information could seriously undermine public confidence in the management of Ontario’s natural resources and environment.

Lack of Public Consultation Leaves Transformation Plan Opaque

MNR has been less than transparent with its transformation plan. Several of the major decisions under the plan have been made without the public notice or consultation required by the EBR. For example, the ministry should have consulted the public on changing the operating status of provincial parks by posting proposed updated park management direction on the Environmental Registry (for more information, see Part 1.2 of this Annual Report). While the Bill 55 amendments were technically exempt from EBR consultation requirements, using the budget bill to shield significant changes to key environmental legislation from public scrutiny – and then refusing to review those decisions when members of the public formally requested that it do so through EBR applications for review – is inconsistent with the spirit and intent of the EBR.

Although other transformation initiatives have been posted on the Environmental Registry, such as regulatory amendments associated with MNR’s approvals modernization strategy, the ministry’s approach to posting and consulting on these initiatives has been problematic. In particular, consultation was undertaken at an overly broad level without providing specific details of the proposals or the proposed text of draft regulations. For example, when asked by the ECO, MNR refused to share with the public the draft text of proposed regulatory changes under the ESA during its public consultation, thereby rendering informed public comment all but impossible.

MNR’s repeated decisions not to consult the public, fully or at all, deprive Ontarians of the opportunity to participate in the wholesale reconstruction of the way in which natural resources are to be managed in Ontario in the future.

ECO Comment

The ECO has long argued that MNR is underfunded. MNR has been consistently unable, due to its limited budget, to do all that the ministry should be doing. However, the ECO is concerned that MNR is not merely looking for innovative ways to carry out its mandate on a smaller budget; the transformation initiatives to date signal a new philosophy in the ministry that gives insufficient weight to the intrinsic value of Ontario’s natural environment and raises the spectre of a very different future for natural resource management in Ontario – particularly in northern Ontario.

The ECO is extremely troubled by the changes to environmental laws made by Bill 55. These broad amendments – coupled with the fact that they were made without consulting the public – lead the ECO to have serious concerns about the ministry’s motives. MNR should have incorporated into the statutes any intended limitations on the newly created powers and provisions. By leaving the details up to future regulation, anything is possible. That MNR took this approach suggests either extreme carelessness in drafting, or that the ministry’s real intent in making these amendments is something unpalatable to the public and better left hidden until it is too late.

Some of the policy changes under the transformation plan may sound good in theory, such as a shift to a broader landscape and risk-based approach to natural resource management. In practice, however, MNR’s approach to transformation is problematic. A modernization of the ministry driven by the values and knowledge of 21st century conservation science and management would be advantageous; modernization driven primarily by “fiscal realities” is a potentially fatal step backwards for conservation in Ontario. MNR’s transformation documents are rife with references to providing easier and more effective service delivery for businesses and balancing the provincial budget, but they pay only lip service to the need to protect Ontario’s natural resources. The ECO fears that the ministry has become more interested in a “sustainable fiscal path” than in sustainable resource management. Hopefully, the permanent return of $40 million to the ministry’s base budget will allow the ministry to reconsider not only specific cost-saving measures, but its underlying priorities as well.

The ECO is not confident that the government has given sufficient consideration to the implications of these wide-ranging changes to MNR. The ministry has revealed little information about the criteria upon which it is basing its decisions to make these changes, nor has it provided any analysis of their short- or long-term impacts on the environment. The ministry is moving forward with its transformation plan in great haste, tripping over itself to get things done. MNR’s apparent disinterest in procuring the public’s input makes these sweeping changes all the more troubling.

At a time when Ontario’s natural resources are under increasing pressure, MNR is sending a message with its transformation plan that we should lower our expectations about what the ministry will do in the future to manage and protect the province’s natural resources. These legislative and regulatory changes, together with cuts to programs and operations, will indeed transform MNR – but not in a good way.

This is an article from the 2012/13 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2013. "The Abdication of Natural Resources Management by MNR." Serving the Public, ECO Annual Report, 2012/13. Toronto: The Queen's Printer for Ontario. 46-54.