The Oro Moraine, like most other moraines, is a formation of sand and gravel deposited by glacial action during the last ice age. It is fairly large, about 26 km long, covering approximately 17,000 ha, running northwest of Lake Simcoe between Barrie and Orillia. About 60% of the moraine is forested, with the remaining 40% used for mixed farming, aggregate extraction, rural housing, and recreation - especially skiing, for which the hilly terrain is well suited. The land is almost all privately owned, with about 275 separate landowners.
The Oro Moraine serves several important ecological functions. It acts as an important groundwater recharge for its immediate area, filtering and controlling flow into the nearby, Minesing Swamp (a provincially significant wetland), among other places. Because of its varied terrain and substantial forested areas, it also provides habitat for many plants and animals that are becoming increasingly rare elsewhere in central Ontario.
Large sections of the Oro Moraine have remained in a fairly natural state, as until now this part of Simcoe County has seen relatively little urban or industrial development. However, the integrity of the moraine as a natural area is becoming threatened by sand and gravel extraction, rural estate development and the expansion of recreational facilities such as ski hills and golf courses, all of which are becoming increasingly common.
The Couchiching Conservancy led the drive to protect the Oro Moraine. They identified it as an area in need of attention in 1994, and in 2001 undertook an inventory of natural habitats and land uses by contacting all the private landowners on the moraine. At the same time, the Township of Oro-Medonte, the local municipality in which the moraine is located, took some steps of its own. It assembled a working group of residents, landowners, and politicians to determine what land use policies should be put in place to control development over the next 20 years.
While this was under way, the water bottling company Gold Mountain Springs, which was already extracting groundwater from an aquifer beneath the moraine, proposed a new bottling plant on agricultural land within the moraine. The Township opposed the proposal, but its authority to prohibit construction of the plant was not at first clear. Provincial laws require local municipalities to protect certain environmental features, but do not give moraines any special status. However, in early 2002 the Ontario Municipal Board declared that the municipality did have the authority to control its land use to this extent, and construction of the bottling plant was stopped.
The municipality then amended its Official Plan to include a special land-use plan for the moraine. This amendment, which has not yet been passed, is expected to designate about 50% of the moraine as a natural area on which development will be tightly restricted. Apart from the aggregate industry, which of course wants to ensure the future viability of its operations, the plan appears to have received fairly widespread support.
The protection of the Oro Moraine, while still a work in progress, is one of the few cases in the region where a local municipality, spurred by a specific threat to a Greenlands area, has taken the initiative in securing protection.