The Niagara Escarpment in Ontario stretches almost 900 km from the Niagara River to Tobermory and Manitoulin Island. It and rises up in places more than half a kilometre above sea level. The entire Escarpment extends from western New York across southern Ontario to the Bruce Peninsula, under the waters of Georgian Bay to Manitoulin Island, and south along the western shore of Lake Michigan. The most spectacular sections – those recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve – are covered by the Niagara Escarpment Plan (from Niagara Region to Bruce County.

The Niagara Escarpment we know today is the result of geological processes that began more than 400 million years ago when the limestones, dolostones, shales, and sandstones of the Escarpment’s bedrock were formed. In geological terms, a cuesta or escarpment is a ridge composed of gently tipped rock strata with a long, gradual slope on one side and a relatively steep scarp or cliff on the other. The present appearance of the Niagara Escarpment is the result of erosion that’s occurred over the past 250 million years. With incredible rock cliffs, breathtaking waterfalls, underwater caves, and 1,000-year-old Eastern White Cedar trees, the Escarpment tells a fascinating story of the natural history of Ontario – a story that needs to be told for generations to come.

Protecting the magnificent Niagara Escarpment means protecting its unique and fascinating characteristics, including that it:

  • Is the longest continuous natural corridor in densely populated south-central Ontario.
    Boasts spectacular scenery – Niagara Falls and 60 other remarkable waterfalls, sheer cliffs, and fabulous vistas.
  • Offers unparalleled hiking experiences along the Bruce Trail.
    Supports a vibrant agricultural sector, including vineyards, orchards, cash crops and livestock.
  • Is home to ancient Eastern White Cedars, the oldest trees in eastern North America.
    Harbours the headwaters of five major river systems.
  • Tells an amazing story of more than 10,000 years of human history, beginning with the indigenous peoples.

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Since the early 1970s, the Ontario government has had in place a program to protect the Niagara Escarpment from environmentally inappropriate land use and development. The centrepiece of this program is the Niagara Escarpment Plan. Adopted in 1985, it is Canada’s first and largest-scale environmentally-based land use plan. It was created under the Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act (NEPDA) which had been enacted by the Ontario Legislature with all-party support in 1973. The main purpose of the Act and the Plan is to protect the natural environment of the Niagara Escarpment and the land in its vicinity substantially as a continuous natural environment. Only those land uses or developments which are compatible with the protection of the Niagara Escarpment environment are permitted within the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area. The NEPDA and NEP take precedence over all other provincial and municipal laws.

The Act also established the Niagara Escarpment Commission and required it to develop a land use plan which would achieve several important objectives, as set out in section 8 of the Act and in the approved Niagara Escarpment Plan:

  • to protect unique ecologic and historic areas;
  • to maintain and enhance the quality and character of natural streams and water supplies; to provide adequate opportunities for outdoor recreation;
  • 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;
  • to ensure that all new development is compatible with the purpose of this Act as expressed in section 2;
  • to provide for adequate public access to the Niagara Escarpment; and
  • to support municipalities within the Niagara Escarpment Planning Area in their exercise of the planning functions conferred upon them by the Planning Act.

The Niagara Escarpment Program is now under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). The NEC is an agency that reports to the MNRF.