If you want to know where your Chatham-Kent councillor stands on the destruction of woodlots, you won't get an answer; at least not publicly.
When comes to deforestation and the C-K Woodlot Preservation Facebook group, Chatham-Kent’s elected officials are tight lipped. According to East Kent Councillor John Wright, council has been instructed by the municipality’s legal team not to discuss the matter.
“We are not to talk about it because of possible legal issues,” Wright told The Herald.
David Taylor, Chatham-Kent’s Director of Legal Services offered “no comment” on the issue.
The group C-K Woodlot Preservation has been using social media to post pictures of various properties, mainly in East Kent, where woodlots are being cleared to make way for crops.
The photographs depict heavy equipment at work and large piles of trees and brush on fire. Recently, the group started listing addresses of the woodlots being destroyed and naming the farmers doing the clearing.
While council is now silenced by lawyers about the matter, the public is still voicing concern. There were letters and petitions, both concerned about the environment and questioning the motivation of the CK Woodlot Preservation group, forwarded to members of council for the March 1 meeting.
One of the items in the package was a strongly worded letter from Sydenham Field Naturalists President Larry Cornelis, decrying the razing of local woodlots calling it an “environmental travesty.”
The group views the destruction of Carolinian forest as “extremely alarming” considering the state of the environment, both globally and locally.
A 2,139-name petition on the matter was also submitted to council March 1, on behalf of the Great Lakes Community Eco Initiative. It calls on Chatham-Kent to rezone all significant woodlands over two-hectares to an open space designation, for the purpose of conservation. Chatham-Kent staff say only 372 people from the municipality signed the petition.
And letter from the Kent Federation of Agriculture defending the clearing of woodlots was also received. It rebuts the claims made by C-K Woodlot Preservation, calling it a “tiny group of extremists with a narrow focus.”
KFA vice-president Harry Lawson says in the letter the behaviour of the Wood Preservation members, are “disrespectful.” He's especially critical of the group’s habit of publicizing the addresses of landowners, which Lawson says could be putting people and their families in danger.
The letter also reminds council of the Woodlot Preservation’s group “last uprising” more than 10 years ago, listing a number of actions the group took at the time, including the harassment of councillors. “The group hasn’t changed” the KFA letter states.
As council considered a Woodlot Bylaw at the time, farmers began removing trees, particularly from fencelines, fearing a new bylaw would stop them from expanding their land base.
Lawson asks Mayor Canniff and councillors to “recognize the group for what it is” and govern accordingly.
The Ministry of the Environment is currently probing the clearing of a Spence Line woodlot after the agency received complaints from area citizens.
The concerns involve the destruction of habitat that’s critical for the survival of species-at-risk including the American Butter Nut tree and flying squirrells. The landowners - who were publicly named by the group - were issued a stop work order by the ministry, pending a review.
The property broke no municipal laws clearing the land. Chatham-Kent is one of only two jurisdictions in Ontario that does not have a forest bylaw enforcement officer.
However, if a landowner knowingly takes down bush that is home to endangered species, they could be looking at fines as high as $250,000 from the Ministry of the Environment and possible imprisonment.
The owners of the Spence Line property declined to be interviewed for this story.
Pam Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Herald