Friday, 11 July 2014

MUSKOKA NEEDS ONTARIO'S VOICE



By: Marie Lardino

Photo: retrieved from Pinterest
      I’ve been coming to my parents’ cottage in Muskoka, Ontario since the late 70’s, and still remember the journey that it took to get here.  To leave the city and venture past Barrie on Hwy 11 was to experience a charming, almost undisturbed heavily treed landscape dotted with trees, lake-views, and little cabin camps.  The smell of the air changed as we headed north. The hustle and bustle of the city disappeared and stress dissipated.  And I grew to love Muskoka - and the journey to cottage country - to the point that in the late 1990’s I purchased my own plot of land on the water and later built my own cottage. As a proud property owner in one of Ontario’s most beautiful landscapes, I felt incredibly lucky to see my cottage as belonging to the forest and its wildlife instead of the other way around. I envied the opportunities afforded to local residents who get to experience this environment year round. I trusted in the safe keeping of this land and in laws that would protect it. Mostly, I relied on sound decisions made by people who I saw as having similar preservation values as mine; at the very least, I predicted the implementation of district by-laws that sought to enforce the needs of this (remaining) forested community.

However, these days, one doesn’t have to travel far back in time to notice the rapid changes taking place in Ontario’s cottage country. For one, the current periphery of Hwy 11 from Barrie to Gravenhust, serves to make an example of the devastating consequence that aggressive tree-cutting by private landowners can do to a once beautiful landscape. This stretch of highway, now lined with everything from trailer home retailers, to franchises and their respective parking lots, have overshadowed the presence of camping and cabin businesses to make room for a tree-less highway that reinforces the concept of poor decision making.

Surely, I thought, the lesson learned by the relentless removal of trees that created this unsightly stretch of highway, would influence future decisions made by municipal politicians holding post in towns that lied north of it. Incorrect! As of late, what I discovered through conversations and emails to council members in the towns of Bracebridge, Huntsville and the Ontario Ministries of the Environment and Natural Resources, is a sad reality. There are, in fact, no by-laws in place in Muskoka to prevent the clear-cutting of trees along the highway and on any property, if in fact, that property is owned privately. Anyone in Muskoka can clear-cut the trees on any land (regardless the lot’s size) based on personal opinion, decision and/or values that see trees as a hindrance to their development needs, businesses signs, the existence of mosquitoes, a dislike for trees, or whatever else works for them.

This brings me to a conversation I had this week with one of Huntsville’s Town Councillors regarding my concerns for the future of Muskoka. I asked the Councillor if he saw aggressive tree clearing on private land as having a future impact on the ecological, environmental, wildlife, and tourist driven needs of Muskoka, and on the needs of seasonal cottage owners. He stated that,  “the locals don’t like people from the city telling them what to do”. I questioned him on how it is possible that Walmart, as one example, was given consent to clear-cut hundreds of trees to highlight their sign along Highway 11 in Bracebridge (not his jurisdiction, however). He accused me of exaggerating. I asked him if there were any penalties for clear-cutting acres of private forests. He replied: “No, anyone can do what they want with their property with exception to the shoreline”.  So I asked him how it is that anyone is allowed to clear-cut an entire parcel of land for building purposes, and then proceed to replant one or two small trees on the same lot. He responded, “Some people have children and they’re worried about mosquitoes”.  And after repeatedly asking me to “listen”, he reinforced his stance by stating, “Nope, a by-law to protect trees on private property is not about to take place here anytime soon”.

In my frustration, I abruptly hung up the phone on the Councillor, claiming my disappointment toward his answers and accusing him of “not giving a crap” about the environment; and for this, I apologize.  However, the truth is that I am ‘Ontarian’, not just ‘Torontonian’. As a taxpayer in this region, I feel I have the right to express my concerns for the environmental health of this area as it relates to my province. As a seasonal property owner, I pay land and property taxes beyond those of permanent residents’. My hydro bills are set substantially higher than those of the local community members'. I have produced work for local builders, contractors, road makers, electricians, plumbers, etc. Moreover, when I speak about tree preservation and its connection to other prevailing issues, I speak for others who might share in similar values. And I speak for wildlife that makes a home in these forests (private or government owned) and for the area’s small businesses that suffer as a result of political negligence in dealing with crucially interconnected issues.

I can’t speak for other cottagers; but as one voice, I can honestly say that if I wanted to drive to suburbia, I would not have purchased property located 2 hours away from Toronto. I am disinterested in shopping at Walmart or any other corporation whose building or parking facility is responsible for the destruction of countless local trees and/or the demise of small businesses. I come to Muskoka for its beauty, its history, for the fresh air, for its forests, rivers and lakes, and for the quaint main streets of Huntsville and Bracebridge, once, full of charm. Equally important, while at my cottage, I can’t bare to imagine that the property next to mine could be in danger of eminent and ‘unprotected’ clear-cutting.

Fortunately, my research on Muskokan related circumstances led me drive thirty minutes east to Haliburton, where the untouched beauty of its lakes and forests still exists along Hwy 35 and surrounding areas. There, I happily discovered that regulations against aggressive tree-clearing are very much in place. So I am currently looking to relocate near the quaint village of Dorset, where the wellbeing of the environment is a broadly shared concern, and the preservation of small business and cottages are still part of that district’s agenda. 

Undoubtedly, my ‘childhood’ Muskoka is long in the past. This was inevitable. Nothing stays the same. But as elected officials, residents (permanent or seasonal) and as visitors of this striking land, can we look past local and corporate greed to think and act responsibly, not for ourselves, but for the sake of the future of this traditionally forested region? I am not an extremist. I am merely a concerned Ontarian who believes in the idea of balance in all things. As such, I continue to question: why are ‘selective’ tree-cutting practices (aside those already designed to protect shorelines) so difficult to envision and implement by district officials? A partial answer to this question can be found in the article posted, below. And fortunately, Scott Aitchison, the Deputy Mayor of Huntsville has gracefully agreed to discuss my concerns. There may not be changes; however, he is by now, the only member of council who has responded attentively.


In any case, I continue to believe that a shift in consciousness is needed. When it comes to the health of Muskoka’s woodlands (private or otherwise), there is a danger in reasoning through compartmentalized, narrow-minded thinking while dismissing the multileveled impact that certain decisions can (and will) have on the future of this historically beautiful land.

Smith, A., 2010. Muskoka's environment does need protection. Huntsville Forester. Retrieved: http://www.muskokaregion.com/opinion-story/3596042-muskoka-s-environment-does-need-protection/

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