Natural Heritage System. The name itself is somewhat vague. So, where are they? What are they? Are they important? Can I buy one? Do I already own one? Perhaps it is a wise idea to delve a little deeper and expand our definition, because you may not realize it, but this “system” might be the the most important thing that you already know about but have never heard of.
A natural heritage system consists of all of the eligible natural cover in a region. It is called a “system” because of the interactions and dependencies between and amongst its parts. The linking of these natural corridors is a key component of the natural heritage system. It is this linkage that helps provide and maintain biological and geological diversity, provide viable populations of indigenous species of flora and fauna and promote the existence of a true ecosystem. A park or solitary forest does not achieve this designation, as development and urban infrastructure isolate it from the surrounding natural environment.
What constitutes “natural cover”?
Natural cover within the context of a natural heritage system include any interconnected wetlands, woodlots, valleylands, open fields, watercourses, and aquatic systems. These systems can include lands that have been restored through environmental restoration as well as areas with the potential to be restored into a natural state through conservation development.
Natural heritage systems therefore by definition are very large swaths of land covering hundreds of hectares of space. Covering such a large area adds to the complexity and delicate balance of these systems. One system can measure over 900 hectares, across various municipalities and regional borders, through private lands, small communities and industrial parks. Cities and other public agencies such as conservation Authorities (TRCA, Great Lakes Remedial Action Plan), the National Capital Commission and the Ministry of Natural Resources collectively own many of the natural features and areas within the natural heritage system. The majority of the system, however, is and will remain under private ownership. Good stewardship by both public and private landowners is essential to the continued preservation and enhancement of our natural heritage system.
The benefits of green spaces and natural areas may seem obvious but they cannot be overstated, and to flourish they need tending. Natural heritage systems recharge our aquifers and filter rainfall, helping to provide plentiful amounts of clean drinking water. These systems clean our air trading dirty carbon emissions for clean and fresh oxygen, and they make this trade willingly and for free. Natural heritage systems provide wildlife habitat, support ecological diversity and natural functions, viable native plant populations and a multitude of ecological benefits to various ecosystems.
This does not mean however that every tree or pond or creek is a part of a natural heritage system, there are certain guidelines and planning restrictions that must be followed in order to achieve such a designation.
So, how is a natural heritage system planned?
Step One: Establish Principles.
The Natural Heritage System was developed based on the following four conservation biology principles:
- Maintain biological diversity: Flora and fauna species are currently disappearing at up to one thousand times higher than normal on a global scale. In many cities in southern Ontario, less than 7% of the landscape supports any form of native ecosystem. Protection is required for rare and endangered species, as well as habitats that are representative or typical of the local landscape.
- Avoid habitat fragmentation: Habitat fragmentation is the greatest threat to biodiversity worldwide.
- Promote corridors and linkages: Well-connected habitat results in high biodiversity while poorly connected habitat results in low biodiversity. Moreover, connections facilitate important longer term ecological functions such as: the re-population of areas subject to local extinctions of particular species (both flora and fauna); the dispersal of young animals and/or of plant seeds/spores that are carried by animals to new habitats in the post-breeding season; and providing habitat space that is critical for certain species to fulfill lifecycle requirements such as feeding and breeding.
- Maintain water balance that sustains ecosystems: Water is one of the key resources driving the biotic and abiotic processes that sustain ecosystems and functioning wetlands. Communities need healthy, dynamic and sustainable watersheds that continue to provide clean, safe water. Stewardship of watersheds, wetlands and self-sustaining natural communities will enhance quality of life and help provide clean drinking water for future generations.
When these four guiding principles come together a natural heritage system is born. It takes time, know-how, ingenuity, money, luck and most importantly cooperation. There are many successful natural heritage systems located across Southern Ontario and all of Canada.
Some systems or “links” in the system are recognizable by name. Rouge Park, The Oak Ridges Moraine, Tommy Thompson Park, Stanley Park in Vancouver, High Park Toronto. Some are unknown watersheds, creeks and tributaries, open fields and small dense woodlands without a name. Geoscape Contracting and their conservation development team is very proud to be part of the continued growth of the Mount Pleasant natural heritage system. Building, restoring and planting this four-channel system is no small operation, as the pictures attached will show. This project along with all other works of environmental restoration is what helps Geoscape Contracting to develop common ground with its community and its environment.