Ontario cottagers should prepare to take the spread of invasive species into their own hands this summer. Yesterday, the Toronto Star reported that the Ford government has cut funding to at least nine programs committed to fighting the spread of invasive species in Ontario.
The Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA) was one of the organizations hit hardest. According to Terry Rees, FOCA’s executive director, the provincial government cut 100 per cent of the funding to their invasive species prevention and education program. “It’s about $50,000,” Rees says.
The money was provided through a partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and was used for on-the-ground work, such as preventing invasive species from spreading into Ontario’s lakes and surrounding areas, and educating cottagers on the species. “Unfortunately, the priorities of the province didn’t allow them in this current fiscal year to continue the support for that on-the-ground work,” Rees says.
FOCA has members in approximately 500 lake associations across the province, and the not-for-profit has been successfully delivering important information about invasive species for years, Rees says. But the organization is largely volunteer driven and without funding from the provincial government to build off of, it will be difficult to continue driving home the message about preventing the spread of invasive species.
“You build momentum on these programs year-to-year, so when you stop and start it’s not helpful when you’re trying to drive important messaging to people,” he says. “Having a consistent presence and a consistent message can be really important, so we’re disappointed because we think our members are inclined and interested and can probably be a big part of the solution.”
In defence of the budget cuts, Justine Lewkowicz, the director of communications for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, wrote in an email that the provincial government is committed to balancing the budget in order to protect public services. “We were elected to clean up 15 years of irresponsible fiscal mismanagement on the part of the previous Liberal government,” she wrote. “The $347 billion long-term debt they left to our children and grandchildren is a direct threat to critical public services Ontarians depend on. As part of our commitment to protect critical services, difficult decisions must be made to ensure fiscal responsibility.”
According to Lewkowicz, the government recognizes the importance of preventing and responding to invasive species in the province. As a result, they are investing over $2 million in invasive species programs and education this year, including $850,000 in the Invasive Species Centre, a not-for-profit organization based out of Sault Ste. Marie that provides invasive species science, education, and action. “[W]e believe they are in the best position to protect our ecosystems province-wide,” she wrote.
While the Invasive Species Centre will combat the spread of problematic species province-wide, FOCA’s efforts were specifically focused on preventing the introduction of aquatic invasive species into Ontario cottage country’s lakes and surrounding areas. Rees says if left unchecked, there’s a much higher risk that invasive species, like zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil, and phragmites, could spread quickly throughout cottage country. “This stuff requires ongoing and considerable diligence, and we’re hoping that something doesn’t slip through while we’re napping,” Rees says. “We’re going to try to do our best with what we can.”
Once an invasive species enters an ecosystem, it can have devastating effects, killing off native species and dramatically changing the quality of life. Rees says they can impact property values, the local economy, and the use of the water. “If you’re not able to use your property in the way you might have been able to use it in previous years, this can be a dramatic…and irreversible change.”
Cottage country is a high-risk area for the spread of invasive species. People are constantly moving between regions: from the city to the country, between lakes; it becomes easy to unintentionally relocate an invasive seed or fish. And without funding from the provincial government, Rees says it falls to the people to police the spread of these species. “It’s up to all of us to do our part to stop the spread of invasive species. It’s going to ensure we can retain that quality of cottage country that we’ve all come to love.”