Provincial protected areas (provincial parks, conservation reserves, wilderness areas and dedicated protected areas) are lands with legal protection against most kinds of environmentally destructive development. Protected areas are defined to protect natural and cultural features, maintain biodiversity and provide opportunities for compatible recreation.
These areas may contain: old-growth forest; lakes, rivers and wetlands; archaeological sites or other cultural values; or habitat for rare or endangered plants and animals.
As a result, protected areas are essential havens for biological diversity (the natural diversity of animals, plants and other living things). They can provide sanctuary to wildlife, act as natural corridors to travel, and contribute to clean air and water. Protected areas also give Ontarians opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and appreciate silence, darkness and nature. Being in nature reduces stress and enhances physical and mental wellbeing for both adults and children.
Ontario does not have enough protected areas. Under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, Canada committed to protect 17 per cent of its land and inland waters, but Ontario is not doing its part. Current protected areas cover only 10 per cent of Ontario. While ecologically valuable areas are being continually lost to development, Ontario has virtually eliminated its budget for acquiring protected areas.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) is responsible for managing the province’s 629 provincial parks and conservation reserves under the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006 (PPCRA). The 11 wilderness areas are regulated under the Wilderness Areas Act. The Far North Act, 2010 allows a fourth class of protected areas (“dedicated protected areas”) to be created with local consent in northern Ontario. There are nine dedicated protected areas in the far north of Ontario, five of which are regulated under the PPCRA.
- In 2001, Environmental Defence (then Environmental Defence Canada), the Wildlands League (then the Algonquin Wildlands League) and Ontario Nature (then the Federation of Ontario Naturalists) submitted Applications for Review asking the government to review Ontario’s legislative framework for protected areas. The Environmental Commissioner reiterated this request in our 2001/2002 Annual Report, and two years later the ministry proposed new legislation, which more than 2,700 people commented on through the Environmental Registry. In 2006, the Ontario government passed the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006, which establishes ecological integrity as the first priority in planning and managing Ontario’s provincial parks and conservation reserves.
- The ECO recommends that the MNRF develop a strategic plan for how it will achieve 17% conservation in the province, including (2017 Annual Report):
- Identifying priority lands for protection (e.g., biodiversity hotspots, improving ecoregional representation, enhancing connectivity, protecting important carbon stores, and
protecting climate refugia);
- Identifying priorities for ecological restoration in the protected areas system;
- Identifying opportunities for co-management with Indigenous communities;
- Providing financial and capacity-building support to increase protection of partially protected natural heritage areas; and
- Restoring land acquisition funding programs.
- The ECO recommends that the MNRF establish a dedicated annual fund and strategic priorities for ecological restoration in protected areas. Few protected areas are pristine, intact ecosystems – many areas have legacy impacts from prior land uses, in addition to ongoing degradation of ecosystem functions from various internal and external pressures. A dedicated restoration fund would help the ministry ensure that protected areas provide the ecological benefits intended (2014/2015 Annual Report).
- The ECO recommends that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry publicly commit to end commercial logging in Algonquin Provincial Park. Ontario’s most beloved and most visited provincial park is still being logged, resulting in serious impacts to the park’s ecological integrity (2013/2014 Annual Report).
- The ECO recommends that the MNRF discontinue its user-fee cost-recovery approach for all aspects of the management of Ontario’s protected areas, except for recreational activities. The ministry’s reliance on cost-recovery provides no assurance that the maintenance of ecological integrity – the conservation of nature – will occur for the vast majority of protected areas that do not pay for themselves (2012/2013 Annual Report).
- The ECO urges the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to ensure that at least 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland waters are conserved through ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas integrated into the wider landscape. As indicated above, Ontario has committed to expand its system of protected areas, but still has a long way to go to protect 17 per cent by 2020 (2012 Special Report).
- The ECO recommends that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry amend the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006 to make management direction for protected areas binding on the Crown. Because no progress has been made, there is still no legal obligation for the MNRF to follow the guidance set out in protected areas management (2009/2010 Annual Report).
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) has reported extensively on protected areas, including issues related to: protected areas law; the important role of protected areas in conserving biodiversity; the planning and management of protected areas; and the MNRF’s capacity to create and manage protected areas. Below is a selection of the ECO’s reports and articles on protected areas. You can also use the search bar at the top of this page to search our website and reports for a particular word or phrase.