The Niagara Escarpment crosses the study area from Queenston in the Regional Municipality of Niagara west and north through the City of Hamilton, the Region of Peel and the Counties of Dufferin and Simcoe.
The Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act (1990) established a regulatory framework and planning process to protect the Escarpment from incompatible land use activities that might compromise its ecological integrity. The Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP), considered by many to be Canada's first, large-scale environmental land-use plan, followed from the Act. Originally approved by the Province in 1985 (and revised as a result of a review initiated in 1990), the specific objectives of the Niagara Escarpment Plan are:
a) to protect unique ecologic and historic areas;
b) to maintain and enhance the quality and character of natural streams and water supplies;
c) to provide adequate opportunities for outdoor recreation;
d) to maintain and enhance the open landscape character of the Niagara Escarpment in so far as possible, by such means as compatible farming or forestry and by preserving the natural scenery;
e) to ensure that all new development is compatible with the purpose of the Plan;
f) to provide for adequate public access to the Niagara Escarpment; and
g) to support municipalities within the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area in their exercise of the planning functions conferred upon them by the Planning Act.
The land covered by the Niagara Escarpment Plan has been classified into one of the following seven land use designations:
- Escarpment Natural Area
- Escarpment Protection Area
- Escarpment Rural Area
- Minor Urban Centre
- Urban Area
- Escarpment Recreation Area
- Mineral Resource Extraction Area
The three land use categories that provide the greatest level of protection are Escarpment Natural Area, Escarpment Protection Area, and Escarpment Rural Area.
- Escarpment Natural Area: This designation is assigned to features such as stream valleys, wetlands and forests (including Provincially Significant Life Science ANSIs) that are either "relatively undisturbed" or in a "relatively natural state." These areas are considered to represent the most significant natural and scenic areas of the Escarpment. This designation provides the highest level of Greenlands protection and the associated policies of the Plan are intended to maintain these natural areas.
- Escarpment Protection Area: Although the name of this designation suggests that a higher degree of protection is accorded to these areas than Escarpment Natural Areas, this is not the case. Escarpment Protection Areas include features that have been significantly modified by land-use activities such as agriculture or residential development, land needed to buffer prominent Escarpment Natural Areas, and natural areas of regional significance (e.g., Regionally Significant Life Science ANSIs). The policies in the Plan are aimed at maintaining the remaining natural features and the open, rural landscape character of the Escarpment and lands in its vicinity.
- Escarpment Rural Area: Escarpment Rural Areas help to maintain the open, rural and scenic landscape character of the area. The Plan policies encourage predominantly agricultural and forestry uses for these lands, which are seen as compatible "buffers" to the more ecologically sensitive areas of the Escarpment.