Why, Minister McGarry, why?
MNRF Minister Kathryn McGarry
It’s been months since the first shock of hearing that the Ontario Tree Seed Plant would close in September 2018. Our first stunned question then was Why? Now, after hearing the rationale from the MNRF at a public meeting, reading some of the letters addressed to your office about the impacts of the closure and listening to the comments of forestry experts, the question remains: Why?
The answer given in the MNRF presentation at Utopia Hall is money, the million dollars a year that it costs to keep the Tree Seed Plant open. For many, that is a narrow and inadequate answer. It has been pointed out that many government facilities cost much more and create much less value. The value generated by the Tree Seed Plant has been detailed by those who use its services: researchers depend on quality seed from a variety of often rare sources; nurseries need quality seed to supply clients with stock that is genetically adapted to local conditions; citizens of Ontario expect their government ministries to ensure that tree seed grown in this province will provide forests with the resilience to withstand the increasing threats of disease, insects and climate change.
The second part of the MNRF’s response is science. The ministry intends to focus on research on climate change and biodiversity, supported by a genetic archive. These are inarguably essential pursuits. But once tree seed production is entirely in private hands, the government will have no direct link with seed clients in Southern Ontario. Any new procedures arising from research will have to find their way through policy changes, monitoring and inspection of privately owned businesses, all this with constantly diminishing MNRF budgets. The possibility of a direct link and transfer of knowledge through the Ontario Tree Seed Plant to clients will no longer be available.
The timeline of closing the Ontario Tree Seed Plant in a year has caused chaos for forestry businesses and organizations. The other question raised by the MNRF’s decision is What’s the Rush? The only obvious time-sensitive issue is the election in June 2018. The 25-acre historic site of the Tree Seed Plant is a treasure among MNRF assets. No doubt developers are lining up their offers. The idea that a cash-strapped provincial government would ram through the closing of an irreplaceable facility to create improved pre-election financial figures should leave Ontario citizens thoroughly revolted.
Yet no other reasons have been offered for the great rush. Certainly no time has been allowed for public consultation or for entertaining other futures for the Seed Plant.
When the suggestion was made at the Utopia Hall meeting of using the extra space at the Seed Plant as an educational facility, the audience was told that education was not part of the MNRF mandate. Compare this response to the one given to the Boy Scout Association in the 1920s when they expressed interest in participating in the reforestation of Ontario.
Herbert Richardson, who had just supervised the building of the Tree Seed Plant, was given a free hand to create a program for the Scouts that became the basis for the Boy Scout Forestry Camp. Richardson taught some of the early programs himself and the Scouts went on to plant many millions of trees.
Something invaluable has been lost along the road to the situation we find ourselves in today. More than ever we need creativity—partnerships between and within government ministries. The crisis of climate change is too multifaceted for a single approach to work. What if, Minister McGarry, we moved beyond government mandates and reinvented a valuable legacy instead of tossing it away.
Here’s my suggestion: Section 4.4 of the Climate Change Action Plan states: “The number of trees to be planted within the boundaries of urban municipalities will be doubled from one million to two million, with funding for irrigation where appropriate.”
Southern Ontario is highly urbanized, yet municipal land is available in parks, boulevards, school yards, roadsides, public works facilities, libraries etc. Many small municipalities do not have the budget to have an arborist on staff to help with design and choosing tree species. The 25-acre Ontario Tree Seed Facility would be an ideal location for an Urban Forestry Centre that would provide seed production for tough species that could withstand urban conditions, education for municipalities and the public on tree maintenance, invasive species, tree inventories, sample designs for roadsides, parks and even suburban yards. Organizations involved in urban forestry would partner with the Tree Seed Facility.
Perhaps you would consider it. What if, Minister McGarry?