for the Greening of
1.0 Carolinian Canada - A Special But Threatened
In the context of Canada's land mass, the area from Toronto to Grand Bend
southwards seems almost incidental - a mere quarter of one percent of the
country's span. But this tiny region known as Carolinian Canada, tucked
into the southward thrust of the Great Lakes, is both Canada's richest and
most endangered ecosystem.
Why so rich? In part, the diversity of species and natural communities
in Carolinian Canada is a reflection of its southerly latitude - its climate
shares more with the "hot continental" regions of the adjacent central
U.S. than the "warm continental" conditions that characterize most of
southern and central Ontario. The moderating influence of Lakes Ontario,
Erie and Huron which bound the region also plays a part, contributing
to the longest growing season in the province. Much of the Carolinian
region has a glacial legacy of deep rich soils, but there is also a diversity
of shallow limestone plains, dolostone cliffs, and Great Lakes shoreline
features which support specialized habitats. This region hosts the world's
largest freshwater delta in Lake St. Clair, extensive dune and wetland
complexes along the Lake Erie shore, and the natural wonder of Niagara
Falls and its associated gorge.
But this is a region rich in human activity as well. Almost 7 million
people, nearly a quarter of Canada's population, live and work here. Nearly
all of Carolinian Canada east of the Niagara Escarpment has been urbanized
or is under serious urban pressure, and other large urban centres have
developed around Brantford, Cambridge, London, and Windsor. Seventy-three
percent of the region is highly productive agricultural land, and farming
is becoming increasingly intensive, particularly in the western sections
of the region. Less productive areas, such as the Niagara Escarpment,
are highly desired for rural residential development, especially those
within reach of urban centres. A rapid shift in countryside demographics
is underway, with fewer farm families, and significantly greater numbers
of rural non-farm residents.
Changes resulting from this human activity have been described in several
earlier studies (Jalava et al., 2000; Reid and Symmes, 1997). Not surprisingly,
one result has been a severe decline in the extent and integrity of natural
§ Historically, 80% of the Carolinian region was covered with vast tracts
of Maple, Ash, Elm, Oak and Pine forests, mostly in old-growth condition.
Forest cover has now been reduced to 11%, with almost no old-growth, and
with the remnant forests concentrated in areas where agricultural and
urban pressures are less intense. And unlike most other parts of southern
Ontario, forest cover in recent years has continued to decline in many
§ Wetlands have declined from an original 28% of the landscape to only
5%, and most of the remaining wetlands are being impacted by heavy loads
of sediments and associated pollutants from upstream areas.
§ Patches of savanna and prairie have been severely reduced in extent,
while other specialized communities such as dunes, alvars, cliffs, bogs
and prairie fens have always been rare. At this point, Carolinian Canada
sustains at least 18 globally rare and 42 provincially rare vegetation
§ The region has the highest concentration of endangered species in the
country, with over 400 plant and animal species classed as provincially
rare, and many of these also nationally endangered or threatened.
§ Most watercourses have been affected by agricultural or urban drainage,
dams, channelization, and high loads of sediments, nutrients, and other
pollutants, resulting in a high number of imperiled freshwater species.
Overall, less than 15% of Carolinian Canada's area still has "natural"
cover, but most of these natural areas are highly disturbed, fragmented,
and isolated. In the urban cores and the most intensive farming areas,
natural cover of less than 5% is characteristic.
Earlier Conservation Efforts
Some of the best remaining natural areas within Carolinian Canada have been
retained as a result of public ownership, public policy or good stewardship.
However, the extent of these areas is very limited:
§ Approximately 2% of the region's land area is protected through public
ownership as national or provincial parks, wildlife areas, and conservation
§ High-quality examples of characteristic landform-vegetation patterns
have been identified as Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSIs)
and partially protected through planning policies; these areas occupy
about 2.5% of the region.
§ Most of the larger wetlands in Carolinian Canada have been evaluated
and receive policy protection, comprising about 2.1% of the region; some
agencies are also attempting to protect unevaluated wetlands.
§ Natural areas along the Niagara Escarpment are protected through policies
of the Niagara Escarpment Plan, and through an ongoing acquisition program.
§ Several very significant natural areas are located on First Nation
lands and have been retained by the traditional management practices on
these lands; First Nation lands comprise about 2% of the region.
In the early 1980s, 38 of the most significant Carolinian sites on private
land were identified to provide a focus for conservation action and stewardship
(Eagles and Beechey, 1985). While these Carolinian Canada sites cover
about 2.7% of the region, they generally overlap with ANSIs and wetlands.
The other categories listed above also overlap to a large degree, suggesting
that in total less than 5% of Carolinian Canada is currently protected
as natural landscapes.
The initial $3.6 million Carolinian Canada program combined the expertise
and resources of a coalition of environmental non-government organizations
and government agencies to protect key sites through education, private
land stewardship, research and acquisition. Through innovative landowner
contact programs, over 6000 ha of the 38 sites were conserved through
agreements with landowners. Roughly 800 ha were acquired for the region's
protected areas. Educational projects, publications, natural areas inventories,
and species-at-risk research made significant contributions as well (Allen
et al. 1990).
After more than a decade of successful projects, a program review (Reid
and Symmes, 1997) concluded that despite this progress, the landscape
as a whole continued to lose natural habitats and species at an alarming
rate. The partners within Carolinian Canada determined to develop a bioregional
conservation strategy that could provide a framework to restore a functional
natural heritage system.