Conservation authorities are one of those government entities that usually fly beneath the radar. We sort of know that they exist, but we don’t have much contact with them except on special occasions like Thanksgiving weekend (in normal years) at Ball’s Falls. It’s quite surprising when an issue brings conservation authorities into the news.

The legislation creating conservation authorities was passed in 1946 in reaction to previous poor conservation practices that had led to serious issues with both land preservation and water course maintenance. According to the Conservation Authorities Act, the role of the authorities is to provide “programs and services designed to further the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources.” In practice this means that conservation authorities sometimes construct works that channel water courses to limit flooding. They also have a regulatory role in preserving such natural features as wetlands and controlling the use of floodplains so that when flooding occurs, as it inevitably will, the damage is limited.

Conservation authorities are special purpose bodies, meaning that they defy easy categorization as either provincial or municipal institutions. They were created by provincial legislation, so they are accountable in some ways to the provincial government. However, they operate at the local level and are governed by a board composed of people appointed by local governments, so they are also accountable to these local governments.

There are several reasons why governments create these special- purpose bodies rather than lodging responsibilities clearly with the municipal government. One typical reason would be when the boundaries of the special-purpose body do not coincide with local government boundaries. The responsibilities of conservation authorities require that their boundaries follow the watershed of major water courses. For example, the territory of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority is mostly in Niagara, but it extends into small areas of Hamilton and Haldimand County because that’s where some water courses flowing through Niagara originate. Since the boundaries of municipalities hardly ever follow watersheds, it is understandable that the boundaries of municipalities and conservation authorities will seldom coincide.

Another typical reason for creating a special-purpose body is when the role of the body does not sit well within the political process. Conservation authorities are sometimes called on to make unpopular regulatory decisions. They can limit the development that can occur on wetlands to preserve the natural habitat of flora and fauna. They can also limit development in floodplains to reduce the damage caused by flooding.

These decisions can put conservation authorities at odds with developers who would like to build on those lands and local governments who would like to have the property tax associated with that development. Bodies that have a regulatory function like this are frequently positioned at arm’s length from direct political control.

The provincial government has introduced legislation that will make it easier for the provincial government to override the local authority’s decisions

Conservation authorities must engage in a balancing act. They are charged with preserving lands that are important for conservation. However, they should not unreasonably restrict the use of land that could be developed without a negative impact. This is where the second reason for the creation of conservation authorities as special purpose bodies comes in. It seems desirable to separate this regulatory function from the political process found in municipal governments. Local councillors could be under inordinate pressure from developers (who might have helped to finance their election campaigns) and from the need for the property taxes flowing from the new development. Conservation was seen as such an important function that it was separated from the usual political processes.

The provincial government has introduced legislation that will make it easier for the provincial government to override the local authority’s decisions. This will change the balance that has been in place for many years. The provincial government always had the right to override a decision of a conservation authority. After all, the province created the authority in the first place. However, this proposed legislation will make it much easier to perform that override. It will make it easier to tilt this delicate balance in favour of development rather than preservation.

This takes on particular importance in a world facing serious climate change.

Most of these decisions are irreversible. When a wetland is compromised by development, the wetland is lost forever. No one tears down a shopping centre to construct a wetland.

Climate change seems to be stepping up the pace of natural disasters. We are experiencing the obvious contradiction in terms of seeing a “100-year event” occurring every five or ten years. Governments are awakening to the fact that we must deal with climate change, but we are facing vast changes that we cannot predict. This is a time to be conservative. Until we develop a better understanding of what the future holds with regard to environmental factors, we should proceed very carefully in making what are really irreversible decisions.

The balancing act that I discussed above is a very delicate process. This is not a time to tilt that balance in ways that could produce irreversible changes in an uncertain environment.

David Siegel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Brock University.