Much of Ramara is founded on shallow bedrock. While that rock may have been a curse to early farmers, it is a valuable resource to companies in the aggregate business. Through the leadership of the Couchiching Conservancy, a new way of addressing the conflicts that come with quarries is underway.
The main attraction is the Carden limestone plain, which includes much of Ramara south of Monck Road and Lake St. John, as well as former Carden Township to the east. Beyond their existing operations, quarry companies have purchased large tracts of farmland and forest, especially in southwest Carden and northwest of Sebright. Applications for new or expanded licenses, along with the contentious battles and Ontario Municipal Board hearings, are the inevitable result.
As anyone who has been part of these battles can attest, the process is lengthy, costly, complicated, and intensely frustrating. Local residents worry about truck traffic, noise, dust, and effects on their water supply and the value of their homes. Environmentalists worry about the loss of the natural habitats that make the Carden Plain such a special place. Because the quarries often go well below the water table, the end result will be a series of square lakes, with very limited opportunity for rehabilitation to farming or nature.
The Couchiching Conservancy, a land trust organization based in Orillia, was one of the first to document the ecological values of the Carden Plain, and to recognize the threats posed by expanding quarries. Three different types of ecological significance come together here:
· Where soils are very shallow, primarily in the central parts of Carden Township, specialized communities of plants called alvars have formed. Alvars are globally imperilled, so they are a high priority for conservation.
· Much of the Carden Plain is used for cattle grazing, which helps maintain extensive grasslands. These areas are excellent habitat for grassland birds such as Upland Sandpipers and Eastern Meadowlarks – a group of species that is fast declining across North America.
· The Carden Plain hosts at least 15 designated species-at-risk, from endangered Loggerhead Shrikes to Blanding’s Turtles to Whip-poor-wills.
Starting in 2005, the Conservancy began bringing these natural features to the attention of both the community and the aggregate industry, in the hope that future quarry development could avoid the critical areas as much as possible. Both the Conservancy and industry reps recognized that other important community concerns had to be addressed as well. The result was the formation of an ongoing discussion group called the Carden Community Forum, which continues to meet several times a year.
The idea behind the Forum is simple – by bringing together people with a range of conflicting interests, can we break down some of the barriers and try to find new and better ways of resolving our differences? While the government-based processes such as Official Plans and OMB hearings are still essential, this resolutely non-government approach seemed to also offer some promise.
The Forum began by inviting representatives from community and environmental groups, aggregate companies, ranchers and landowners to a day-long session that identified their most urgent concerns. Three public workshops followed, to look in more depth at issues such as groundwater and planning designations. Eventually the Conservancy produced an “Integrated Strategy”, based on input from the Forum, as well as a more detailed analysis of where the most important natural habitats are located.
These results, while far from perfect, have been major steps forward. The Forum generally accepted that future quarries will be an inevitable part of this landscape, but the key is locating them in the right places, preferably in clusters. Forum participants highlighted the strong linkage between a viable beef grazing industry and grassland birds, leading to financial assistance programs to help farmers replace fences and create new water supplies. One of the key tasks for 2010 is to strengthen the information base on grassland birds and species-at-risk in Ramara, where less ecological work has been done in the past.
Ron Reid, as resident of Washago, is Carden Program Coordinator for the Couchiching Conservancy.