Algonquin Highlands mayor Carol Moffatt has heard multiple stories about Crown land across Haliburton County in the past couple of years.
Residents have contacted her about people shooting down trees, using assault-style weapons and leaving garbage and spent cartridges.
“These are serious and sharply-increasing concerns about public safety due to the amplified growth of incompatible uses of specific Crown land parcels in proximity to private property,” she wrote in a letter to County council in June 2021. Some general use Crown land preserves that were once quiet camping spots next to lakes are seeing increased recreational vehicle traffic or people using firearms for prolonged target practice.
The rules governing them or enforcement protocols haven’t changed. Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry (MNDMNRF), Greg Rickford, declined an interview. However, a ministry spokesperson said they receive complaints about Crown land use regularly, including from the Highlands.
The ministry did not directly respond to a question on whether a review of Crown land access would be feasible.
“Crown land is available to the public for many wide-ranging activities and this includes hunting so long as all laws are met. The (ministry) generally does not prescribe site-specific hunting or firearms restrictions on Crown land,” an email stated.
When asked if Rickford believed current Crown land legislation adequately protects nearby landowners and other users, the spokesperson pointed to Canada’s existing gun legislation.
In some cases, Crown land reserves have been closed due to unsafe conditions.
The MNRF closed an area near Burleigh Falls in Peterborough due to “complaints involving liquor consumption, parking violations, littering and COVID-19 and social distancing violations.”
Judith Monteith-Farrell, NDP ministry critic, said the complaints seemed disturbing.
“I’d encourage (Haliburton Kawartha Lakes Brock) MPP Laurie Scott to take an active role in problem-solving, to ensure this region is enjoyable for everyone,” she said in an email.
Scott described the situation as a “balancing act,” but did not directly address whether she would support a review of Crown land rules.
She said, “Crown land is for use, and many uses are allowed on Crown land. With the pandemic, there are more people looking for outlets and more people that come up to the area that really isn’t used to… the neighbours that are by Crown land, the use of Crown land, and how it affects other people.”
Scott added, “going forward, as this persists, we’re going to have to look at what could possibly be done.”
She insisted the provincial government is taking the issue seriously.
‘Somebody may get shot’
Peter Franzen, a councillor from the Municipality of Trent Lakes, disagrees with Scott. In 2021, he tabled a motion calling on the province to review rules regarding target shooting on Crown land, which resulted in a letter being sent to the province demanding action. In one area near Bobcaygeon, he said walkers are often spooked by close-by gunshots and spent cartridges littering the road. In another spot, a trapper showed Franzen bullet holes in trees lining a forested hill behind his house.
“We’re talking about egregious and potentially life-safety issues”Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt
Propane tanks and garbage were strewn across the nearby Crown land area. He met with the MNRF and Scott to discuss Trent Lakes’ concerns in 2021.
“They didn’t take it seriously at all,” Franzen said.
He said Scott told him the complaints likely mean newcomers aren’t used to the way people use land in rural areas. Franzen worries neglecting the issue could be dangerous, especially with a suspected increase in the use of Crown land due to rising migration to rural areas.
“Somebody may get shot,” he said.
Since June 2021, Moffatt and Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin have been attempting to get the issue in the provincial spotlight.
County council assigned them the role of communicating Haliburton’s Crown land concerns with the province. It’s been a difficult process. “The way Crown land is being used now is not necessarily keeping with the philosophy of the Lands Use Act when [the public land act] was created. Like everything, it probably needs to be updated,” Moffatt said.
She presented a delegation to the ministry at the Rural Ontario Municipalities Association’s annual conference in January.
Moffatt said she asked deputy minister Monique Rolf von den Baumen-Clark four questions: “Will the ministry commit to staff taking affirmative action on the identified problem areas?
Will you commit to working alongside OPP to fill in the existing jurisdictional gaps so that someone at the provincial level can and will take responsibility for what’s been going on out there?
Will you commit to an ongoing rolling review of the general use definitions for the identified problem areas that we know of and will come to know in order to evaluate the suitability of what’s happening on them and potentially stop those uses?
Would the ministry consider updating the public lands act to better reflect and control what’s happening?”
She didn’t receive any answers but was assured other municipalities in Ontario are dealing with similar issues.
Moffatt insisted it’s not about limiting firearm use, ATV trail access or Crown land enjoyment. “Our efforts to have some conversations with the province around Crown land use is not some idle complaint by people who don’t like their neighbours. We’re talking about egregious and potentially life-safety issues on certain parcels of land where incompatible uses are occurring.” Moffatt secured a Zoom meeting with the MNRF in March 2022.
On the call, MNRF staff said the ministry, post-election, will raise the issue, but they didn’t give a timeline. Moffatt is entering her last months as mayor, as is Devolin. Their official work on the file is likely coming to a close.
“There’s no question that the ministry hears these folks’ [complaints] loud and clear. The question is what are they going to do about it?” Moffatt asked.
She’s compiling a folder of Crown land correspondence for future councils, with the hope others take up the cause. “You never want to start a new term and think you’re at day one,” she said.