TORONTO - Premier Doug Ford said Monday he would not “touch” a protected stretch of land surrounding the Greater Toronto Area, pushing back against criticism over mass resignations at a conservation authority.

The chair of Ontario's Greenbelt Council, David Crombie, stepped down on Saturday over what he called fundamental differences of opinion on the province's Greenbelt policy direction. Six members of the council resigned on Sunday.

Ford said that his government was committed to expanding the quality and quantity of the Greenbelt in 2020 .

“During the election I said I wasn't going to touch the Greenbelt, unlike the Liberal government that touched it 17 times,” said Ford, who noted that all six of the conservation authority members who resigned were appointed under the previous Liberal government.

“I have not touched the Greenbelt, we won't touch the Greenbelt, we won't build on the Greenbelt,” said Ford during question period.

Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, said he wanted to work with the council members but they offered no plan to expand the Greenbelt.

“I'm going to turn the page and work with the existing members who remain, and some new members, on our priority for the government which is to grow the Greenbelt,” said Clark. “We couldn't seem to get a plan in place.”

Clark made the comments Monday morning after announcing that the province was investing $30 million to create and restore wetlands across Ontario as well as partnering with non-profit organization Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Media were only made aware of the upcoming funding announcement on Sunday night but Clark insisted that the timing was not linked to the sudden departure of half of the council's membership.

“This has been a conversation about wetlands that has taken place not just over the weekend but over the last several weeks,” said Clark. “(It) sends a clear signal to Ontarians that this is a priority area for us and we continue to work with partners like Ducks Unlimited moving forward.”

Clark added that he is committed to meeting with the council on a monthly basis.

Crombie, a former Conservative cabinet minister, explained his reasons for stepping down in a letter Saturday.

“Ontarians can successfully realize the great values and benefits of the Greenbelt through the effectiveness of watershed planning, the strength and resilience of the Conservation Authorities and the power of public participation and open debate,” Crombie wrote. “It is now clear that the government's direction ... disastrously assaults all three of these primary conditions.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2020.