LAKE WILCOX should be safe. It is on the Oak Ridges Moraine, an area specially protected under Ontario planning law. But if Lake Wilcox isn’t ruined by spreading suburbia, it will owe more to Sharon and Jim Bradley than to planning policies.

The Bradleys know a great deal about Lake Wilcox, a kettle lake already seriously impaired by urban development. Since 2005, as part of a program known as Lake Partners, they have been collecting water samples, and they closely monitor the deliberations about local development plans. The Bradleys’ research indicates that sedimentation is already a problem where lake water flows into the East Humber River. They have shared their data with municipal and conservation authorities. But they are keeping an eye on municipal planning decisions and negotiations with developers nonetheless.

Together with other Lake Wilcox denizens, the Bradleys are active participants in municipal decision making. As such, they are also pioneers in an emerging form of citizen engagement that combines ecology and politics. It is a crucial combination for citizens who find themselves increasingly filling the gap left between narrowly focused commercial interests and limited government capacity.

The Oak Ridges Moraine may seem the last place likely to need innovative citizen initiatives. The 160-kilometre-long moraine that runs parallel to Lake Ontario is supposed to be sacrosanct. But most of this protected area is just a developer’s wallet away from Toronto and its sprawling municipal ­neighbours. When the province established the moraine as a special planning area, it mostly left implementation of the new requirements in the hands of municipal governments, which are subject to all manner of other pressures. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is officially assigned to keep an eye on things, but its experts are few, busy and distant.

So the Bradleys find themselves thrust into what’s becoming a common citizen role, that of monitors who watch and record not just how well the moraine’s ecosystems are doing, but also whether or not municipalities are meeting their obligations.

Since 2005, the Monitoring the Moraine (MTM) project, established by the Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition and Citizens’ Environment Watch, has been promoting and supporting citizen monitoring and civic engagement across the whole moraine planning area. MTM uses a standardized ecological research protocol, has a Moraine Watch checklist for monitoring municipal conformity with the moraine plan and employs an online tracking system to red flag concerns.

MTM’s work is paralleled in many other places. In the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, for example, the Millard/Piercy Watershed Stewards have been monitoring municipal planning decisions and valley ecology since 1995.

Citizen monitors on Vancouver Island, the Oak Ridges Moraine and elsewhere have no desire to take over from governments. On the contrary, they regret that paid elected officials are leaving so much in the laps of volunteers. For the Lake Wilcoxes of Canada, however, the need for citizens with ecological and political skills is not likely to end any time soon.

Debbe Crandall is one of Canada’s foremost environmental ­crusaders and the executive director of the Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition. She lives on the moraine. Robert Gibson, the chair of Alternatives’ editorial­ board and a professor at the University of Waterloo, has a special interest in sustainable

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