Completing a Natural Heritage Assessment without losing your mind

By Andrea McDowell

Environmental field work in support of an environmental assessment forms the bulk of the work required to gain regulatory approvals and permits for a new energy project. It’s also unpredictable, depending on factors such as terrain, results of preliminary field studies, ever-changing regulations and guidelines, and weather conditions. But take heart: there are steps that can be taken in the project planning stages to minimize delays and maximize the chance that your approvals will be received on time.

1.    Complete a thorough constraints study before beginning
Different kinds of habitats require different kinds of field studies at different times of year. Doing legwork to understand what features might be possible at your project site will allow you to work those restrictions into your schedule from the outset. While surprises can always arise later when biologists are on the ground—an endangered species found during botanical surveys, a sighting of a rare bird—a detailed constraints analysis will allow you to rule out many features in advance.

2.    Gain (or hire) a thorough understanding of all of the Natural Heritage Assessment guidelines in Ontario
Regulations can be misleading when it comes to Natural Heritage Assessments. The Renewable Energy Approvals regulation, for instance, states only that a “site investigation” must be done of all lands and waters within 120m of a planned project location. It would be easy to assume that detailed notes from a site investigation taking a single day would meet the requirement of the regulation. However, the Ministry of Natural Resources must be satisfied that the investigation conforms to their guidelines and protocols; and manuals detailing those guidelines and protocols run for thousands of printed pages.
The details buried in those printed pages can make or break your project schedule. It is imperative that whoever is planning your Natural Heritage work know what studies need to be done at what time of the year; if you don’t get your amphibian surveys underway by March or April, depending on where in the province you are, you will be waiting until next March or April to begin. Similarly, many studies can only be conducted under certain weather conditions—light or dark, above 8C or 20C, sunny or cloudy.

3.    Use pre-construction survey commitments to your advantage wherever possible
In some cases, it is possible to defer certain kinds of habitat usage surveys until after completion of the Environmental Assessment documents, if the habitat is treated as significant in the reports with all appropriate mitigation measures factored in. If the habitat turns out to be significant when later evaluated, the appropriate protections are already in place; if it’s not, those mitigation measures and other commitments no longer apply.
This process is well-developed with Renewable Energy Approval studies, but it is also worth trying with other EAs where waiting for the appropriate time for necessary studies may put a project at risk. This will depend on negotiations between the Ministry of Natural Resources and the biologists who will be undertaking the field studies.

4.    Beware turnover
Some government agencies have high rates of turnover thanks to a dependence on short-term contract staff. The regulator you are dealing with today may no longer be around when the reports are submitted for final approval. While it is tempting to accept if a regulator offers to cut you some slack on the timing restrictions of a particular study or the specific work involved, keep in mind that the final decision-maker may have a different perspective; if you end up needing to re-do some portion of your program, it can end up being more expensive and time-consuming than if you’d gone the long way around to start with. Know how much risk you are willing to assume with turnover rates at the agency you are dealing with, and add some buffer to your schedule in case you need to repeat a portion of your field work.

Natural Heritage Assessments and the associated field investigations can represent 80% of the effort and time required to complete and environmental assessment—a situation often frustrating for project proponents and designers, who are used to the more structured and predictable worlds of engineering. However, the risks and uncertainties—if accepted and planned for from the outset—can be successfully managed, allowing your project to be constructed on time.