120-day ban gives township time to decide what to do
CHATHAM-KENT — A long-smouldering battle about preserving tree cover in this at farming area has surfaced again after the municipality imposed a temporary ban on clear-cutting of woodlands.
Late in April, Chatham-Kent council approved a woodlot preservation bylaw that was to be in effect for 120 days.
It was a victory for local environmentalists who lobbied for the bylaw, noting that Chatham-Kent has one of the lowest levels of tree coverage in the province at around 3.5 per cent and is one of few municipalities that does not have a tree-cutting control bylaw.
But many farmers in the area feel they have been targeted by the bylaw, worried it will infringe on their landowners rights and hamper the operations of their farm.
Jay Cunningham, president of the Kent Federation of Agriculture, said area residents should trust that farmers will do their best for their communities and their business.
“Farmers are the best stewards of the land and there is no incentive for them not to be,” Cunningham said. He added that while the tree coverage in Chatham-Kent is low that is not unexpected in an area of rich farmland that is also generally flat.
With grain prices soaring this year, Cunningham said there may be more incentive to increase acreage, but he said that incentive to clear land has always been there, simply because of the steadily increasing value of farmland.
The battle over the clear-cutting bylaw goes back at least eight years. In 2013, Chatham-Kent council turned down a similar bylaw to ban clear-cutting and a year later adopted a natural heritage implementation strategy that emphasized education, rather than regulation, to preserve woodlots.
Cunningham said it a was a system that worked well for a long time and the federation was caught off guard when council decided to shelve the strategy and impose the temporary clear-cut ban.
“We were very surprised that the municipality decided to take this approach based on the request and the whims of a small group of people who, for the most part, aren’t landowners and don’t have any skin in the game,” Cunningham said.
Louis Roesch, who operates a livestock and cash crop operation near Kent Bridge, also thinks that a clear-cutting bylaw is unnecessary. He says it will only exacerbate the rural-urban divide with farmers being held responsible for protecting tree cover while sprawling suburban developments continue to eat up a lot of natural landscape. “When you put houses on that land, it’s gone for good,” he said.
Roesch said if the municipality is intent on preserving woodlots, it should consider entering into negotiations to purchase the land from farmers.
But not all farmers in the area are opposed to the clear-cutting ban. Some say the natural heritage strategy has done little to preserve woodland and clear-cutting by farmers is no longer acceptable when there is so much public concern over climate change.
Rock Geluk, a Ridgetown grain and hog farmer, said other municipalities have been successful in preserving woodland area without interfering with farm operations.
“The lack of a forest conservation bylaw makes it difficult for woodlot owners to sustainably manage their forests. Why take good care of your woodlot when the next owner will most likely just over-log it and then clear it?” he asked.
While the temporary bylaw is in place, the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority is conducting an aerial survey of the tree cover of the municipality. Cunningham noted that the survey may be misleading because it will not include Rondeau Provincial Park or two First Nations communities in the municipality.
Chatham-Kent council will review the temporary bylaw once they have received recommendations from municipal staff based on research and consultations with the community. Cunningham said the Federation wants to be part of any consultations and will advocate for a return to the natural heritage implementation strategy.
“We don’t believe we need the level of restriction that a tree-cutting bylaw puts in place,” he said.