Ontario’s natural resources minister has signalled a new era of co-operation could be on the horizon between the ministry and South Bruce Peninsula when it comes to the town’s desire to cultivate and groom Sauble Beach.
“I’m going to work with Environment Minister Rod Phillips, but I’ve given every indication from my ministry that I want the MNRF to work with the municipality to find a solution to this issue. I think we can come to a solution by working together as opposed to working against each other,” Progressive Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek, who was sworn in as minister of natural resources and forestry in June, said in an interview.
Yurek, while visiting Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Friday with local MPP Bill Walker, was asked by The Sun Times about the contentious beach maintenance issue.
South Bruce Peninsula officials say the town has been trying for years to get an agreement in writing with the MNRF that would allow the municipality to cultivate and rake the sand at Sauble before the endangered piping plovers arrive for the nesting season and after the shorebirds leave for their southern wintering grounds.
But Mayor Janice Jackson said the ministry, under the previous Liberal government, refused to come to the table.
The MNRF charged the town in March, alleging its beach maintenance work in April 2017 damaged piping plover habitat. It also issued a stop order against any further town-sanctioned maintenance “to ensure ongoing protection of the piping plover.”
The ministry laid a second charge against the town this summer, again alleging it had violated the Endangered Species Act. This time, it was related to beach maintenance work carried out by the town between Aug. 23 and Sept. 7, 2017.
Both charges, filed at the Provincial Offences court in Owen Sound, have been set over to Aug. 29.
South Bruce Peninsula has said it is interested in working with the MNRF “to develop practical and successful approaches to support the recovery of the piping plover, maintain appropriate habitat and balance human activity on an 11-kilometre beach that draws more than 800,000 visitors every year.”
Jackson said the town was unable to meet with the previous natural resources minister to discuss a beach management plan.
Yurek’s comments are “music to my ears,” she said.
“We welcome any co-operation with the MNRF. That’s been our goal from the beginning – to sit down and come up with a viable, realistic, comprehensive beach management plan,” she said.
“We’ve been frustrated for several years with their tendency to approve things one minute and then disapprove of them the next.”
Jackson said South Bruce Peninsula was granted a meeting with MNRF officials at this month’s Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference in Ottawa – the first such conference since the PC Party formed a majority government in June – but were told a few days before the event that the ministry no longer has jurisdiction over the beach issue.
That responsibility has been turned over to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
Town representatives were able to schedule a meeting with that ministry at AMO instead, Jackson said.
The town’s CAO Brad McRoberts, who attended the meeting, told Jackson that it was an “excellent meeting and he feels very optimistic right now and very encouraged,” she said.
Yurek said he agrees a balance must be struck between maintaining Sauble Beach and protecting plover and beach habitat.
“Sauble Beach is very important to the economy of this region and I think we can work together as opposed to against each other. So my ministry will be working with the municipality to find a solution and included in that discussion will be the minister of the environment, conservation and parks,” he said.
Walker said he co-ordinated a meeting at Sauble a few years ago – while the grooming machines were on the beach – that was attended by himself and town, MNRF, Grey Sauble Conservation and Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation officials.
The group came to a resolution at the meeting, he said, but the MNRF changed their approach last year.
“I’ve been baffled why this (a resolution) can’t be found again,” he said.
“And to what the minister has said is exactly it – there has to be a balance. The town has worked, in my opinion, very hard to not try to usurp. They still have protective fencing, they don’t do it when the piping plover is here. They’re just saying they want to do maintenance before and we want to do maintenance after so that we respect the users of the beach in its entirety while respecting the realities of an endangered species.”