Tuesday, June 3, 2014

It’s time to change the channel. Can you say Ecotourism?

By Gary Cerantola
Georgian Bay and area with its stunning natural scenery and its expanding network of hiking and biking trails and waterways is ripe for shaping an ecotourism economy that lends itself to sustainability and attracting investment while providing green jobs for Ontarians for generations to come. It’s time to consider both the private and social benefits of managing our natural heritage while creating a sustainable local economy based on ecotourism.

One of our biggest treasures is the Minesing Wetlands.
The Minesing Wetlands is internationally recognized as an area of unique biological diversity and ecological importance. This natural treasure is recognized under the Ramsar Convention which is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands, recognizing the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands and their economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value. It is also recognized as a Provincially Significant Wetland and a Provincially Significant Life Science Area of Natural and Scientific Interest in our province of Ontario.

It is currently threatened by overdevelopment in the form of urban sprawl, and flooding exacerbated by global warming effects. It has suffered degradation from logging, land recovery, farming and drainage practices that date back to the 1800s and is a product of the management systems that have been put in place to protect it over the last few decades. The Minesing Wetlands boasts the largest and most diverse wetland complexes in Southern Ontario and is known in some circles as the Costa Rica of Ontario for its bio-diversity. It provides habitat for several significant species, including at-risk turtles and eastern prairie white-fringed orchid. The Minesing Wetlands has long been known to contain one of the oldest and largest heronry areas in southern Ontario and provides expansive breeding opportunities for marsh birds. Its extensive marshes provide significant stopover habitat for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. The Minesing Wetlands also supports one of the largest deeryards within the Nottawasaga River watershed.

Located in the heart of the Nottawasaga River watershed in Simcoe County, the wetlands include swamp marsh and fen communities. The Nottawasaga River is part of the Great Lakes Basin, and is a tributary of Lake Huron. Its main branch is 120 kilometers long and empties in to Georgian Bay at Wasaga Beach. The Nottawasaga River system is one of the largest producers of Rainbow Trout and Chinook Salmon in the Georgian Bay/Lake Huron basin. The river also supports critical spawning and nursery habitat for Lake Sturgeon.

Paving Paradise and Putting up a Parking Lot
Since 1833 European settlers began settling, farming and logging the Minesing Wetlands. We have been treating our natural heritage as if it was a business in need of liquidation. Currently there is a Midhurst secondary plan in the Township of Springwater in play that has earmarked a development expansion that will potentially accommodate 30,000 residents on the edge of the Nottawasaga River watershed. This development will result in storm drains and sewer treatment effluent that will make their way to the wetlands and challenge the carrying capacity of this eco-system.

This is a perfect example of traditional economic drivers at play. Without awareness, education and citizen engagement we will never succeed in creating a sustainable future for our grandchildren and generations to come.

Let`s Change the Channel
We have an opportunity to develop new business models to create a sustainable portion of our economy through ecotourism. If we can spawn ecotourism economic drivers in Ontario we have a chance to diminish traditional incentives to build developments on sensitive lands.
Given the rich natural capital bounded by the Minesing Wetlands we will be able to harness the bounties of ecotourism and motivate efforts to preserve it, while sharing these resources with visitors around the world. This new industry would create an emphasis on enriching personal experiences and environmental awareness through interpretation while creating a greater understanding and appreciation for nature, local society, and culture.

The benefits of ecotourism will drive the desire to manage the ecological resilience of the Minesing Wetlands in terms of protecting what we have with better monitoring, stewardship and management practices and restoring conditions such that we will maintain these natural treasures for future generations.

Ontario's young workers have largely been affected by a national economic shift away from the manufacturing sector towards resource extraction and Ontario government austerity measures over the last few years. With Ontario youth unemployment rates trending higher than the national average would it not make sense to create employment incentives associated with ecotourism to develop a burgeoning ecotourism industry dealing with employment and conservation issues in a combined strategic effort? Ontario’s younger working cohort segment have the right value set and the energy and enthusiasm to make the most impact in terms of creating a best-in-class ecotourism business model for Ontario.

Aligning the Forces in Our Society to Preserve Our Heritage
We can align drivers to consider both private and social benefits and manage our natural heritage. As a society we are finally recognizing that, the challenge of sustainability rests almost entirely in getting the economy right. We acknowledge that climate change and ecological degradation threaten our future prosperity. Ecotourism as part of the green economy can be driven equally by opportunity and conservation, as green economy options open up new possibilities for jobs and growth. As a recent report from the U.N. put it, “the greening of economies is not generally a drag on growth but rather a new engine of growth…a net generator of decent jobs…”

So the next time you recognize a part of our beautiful world undergoing change that has the potential to short change our future generations, be a good ancestor and voice your concerns. Chances are an ecotourism opportunity can be explored that will solve this problem and simultaneously grow green jobs in Ontario and create a positive impact on our economy.
Pictures courtesy of Jim Samis, Free Spirit Tours, http://www.freespirit-tours.com/

Gary Cerantola, Hon BSc. Chemistry, P.Eng., MBA is a resident of Wasaga Beach and currently a candidate in the Wasaga Beach Municipal 2014 election for Deputy Mayor. www.garycerantola.com