Ontario's last, great wilderness
----- Original Message -----
From: RUSSELL DIABO
Sent: Sunday, August 06, 2006 8:25 AM
Subject: Ontario's last, great wilderness
Ontario's last, great wilderness
Development coming to the Far North
17 million hectares, just 25,000 people
Aug. 5, 2006. 11:14 AM
MUSKRAT DAM, Ont.-When coffee first arrived here many years ago, no one knew how long to boil it.
"Seven minutes," a native elder advised with suitable gravity.
So, seven it was, and seven it remains, even though the wise man had pulled the magic number out of thin air.
Chief Vernon Morris laughs at the story as he lifts a blackened, battered pot off the fire and pours himself a cup of toxic-looking liquid.
It's about a landscape and a way of life: Both are about to change forever as the provincial government pushes development into the Far North, Ontario's last frontier.
But Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay vows things will be different than in the south: "We've got a brand-new fresh slate up there ... We've learned from all our past mistakes, and our history."
Others see worrying evidence that it's business as usual, and that the environment and native people will pay a steep price.
Morris was at a traditional camp, about an hour by motor boat up the Severn River from Muskrat Dam, a quiet, well-run First Nation with 300 residents.
Members of his extended family were ending a relaxed week in the bush. They'd bagged a moose, beaver and geese, taught their kids some Oji-Cree ways, prepared the site for the big hunt this fall, told tales and jokes, and downed a lot of rugged caffeine.
They were, by southern Ontario standards, in the middle of nowhere.
The wide, muddy Severn and the tiny community are in a huge, little-known part of the province that, although connected to the outside world by planes, television and the Internet, remains pretty much as it was 500 years ago - or 5,000.
A mere 25,000 people, in 45 scattered settlements, inhabit these 17 million hectares stretching across the top of Ontario. Shy woodland caribou outnumber humans.
Here, fire, insects or old age - not loggers - fell trees. Travel is by small aircraft or boat; beyond the communities, the only roads are constructed on ice each winter.
Forest like this stretches across Canada's midsection. Biologists call it the boreal. It's the heart of our wilderness myth, though few experience it.
In the midst of it, it seems - like Muskrat Dam's seven-minute coffee - strong, and immune to change.
But that's an illusion. Ontario's northern forest is, in fact, a fragile remnant.
It's also part of a global pattern. Three-quarters of Earth's original forests have been chopped down. Canada's boreal is one of just three with large areas still intact. The others are a similar landscape in Russia and Brazil's Amazon rainforest. All are dwindling.
A couple of centuries ago, Ontario was nothing but trees. First, the southern forest of thick maple, oak and pine was cleared. Then, loggers moved up past the French River, which flows between Lake Nipissing and Georgian Bay, and into the boreal. Now, only the most remote 40 per cent remains in close to its original state.
The limit of development is known as the cutline, which meanders along roughly the 51st parallel of latitude.
To the south are highways, big-box stores, power lines, cottage developments, mines and loggers. The province has turned over almost all of the forest to companies that produce lumber and paper. Most is sold in the United States. The land is dominated by massive clear-cuts and a spider's web of rutted access roads that quickly become permanent public thoroughfares.
Environmentalists consider it an ecological disaster that threatens countless bird, animal, fish and plant species, and contributes to climate change.
Until now, the province has prohibited commercial logging north of the cutline. Economic realities kept much else from happening.
Canada's boreal holds much of Earth's fresh water, and is the nesting place for one-third of North America's songbirds, notes Vancouver-based Forest Ethics. Its soils and trees are one of the planet's largest carbon storehouses; they play a major role in regulating climate change.
A study for the Calgary-based Pembina Institute and the Canadian Boreal Initiative - an Ottawa group comprised of green organizations, forest companies and First Nations - concluded the forest region is more valuable in its natural state than if it's exploited by industry.
The study measured the net value of industry across the boreal - logging, mining, oil and gas, etc. - versus the value that the forest brings in its natural state - carbon storage, medicine, food, water and air purification. According to the study, the boreal won handily, $93.2 billion to $37.8 billion.
Some First Nations say forest companies have trampled their traditional lands and rights. People in Grassy Narrows, an hour's drive north of Kenora, still suffer the impacts of mercury poisoning from a pulp and paper mill in the 1970s. For four years, they've battled nearby cutting by two giants - Abitibi Consolidated Inc. and Weyerhaeuser Company. That's why some recently blocked the TransCanada highway.
A recent report by the Boreal Initiative says overfishing brought on by road access, as well as habitat destruction from sedimentation and dams, is causing fish stocks to collapse in boreal lakes and streams.
A shelf-load of books and studies concludes current forestry practices - based on clear-cutting with heavy industrial machines, followed by reforestation - are unsustainable even though licences granted by the province require loggers to return cut areas to something like their original state.
Replanting doesn't work, says Jay Malcolm, a forestry expert at the University of Toronto. Even when spruce and Jack pine are sown, fast-growing aspen and poplar quickly overtake them. And, he says, forests are likely to be recut years before they reach old growth, the only stage that supports many species of birds and animals.
Instead of natural, complex forests, they become tree farms.
Last April, Chief Morris and others from Muskrat Dam were at a different camp, near a river called the Windigo, whose clear water forms a distinct grey pattern where it merges with the murky-brown Severn.
They were on their annual goose hunt, an important source of food and crucial connection with their history.
This year, for the first time, hardly any geese came. Helicopters frightened off most of the tasty birds. The chopper crews, contracted by the international conglomerate De Beers, were seeking evidence of diamonds.
Company officials asked for a meeting to discuss the disruption, then dictated who could attend, Morris says. He told them to forget it.
"I get the sense that for them it's a minor issue. They don't want to work with First Nations ... They just go ahead."
Muskrat Dam has a history of fending off projects. During the 1960s and again in the early '90s, it was mining companies looking for gold and nickel. In between came a proposal to construct up to eight hydroelectric dams on the Severn, a scheme that would have flooded much of the community's traditional territory.
"We're not so lucky these days," Morris says. "The companies are getting bolder."
De Beers is already building a mine east of Muskrat Dam, over near James Bay. That open-pit project, called the Victor mine, will impact an area four times the size of Toronto.
Last winter, Aurora-based Platinex Inc. began exploring for platinum despite objections from the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation, about 70 kilometres from Muskrat Dam. When people from KI protested, the company halted preliminary work, then sued the community for $10 billion.
(Earlier this week, an Ontario Superior court judge rejected Platinex's request for an injunction to end the native protest. Instead, the judge granted the reserve's application for an injunction stopping work at the site for five months while the company and the provincial government hold talks with KI.)
Despite that controversy, Superior Diamond Inc. of Vancouver later staked a claim on the traditional lands of KI's chief.
Last month, Ramsay's ministry endorsed the first plan for logging north of the cutline, in two forest blocks near the Manitoba border. There's also talk of hydroelectric projects and corridors for power lines.
In the 2003 provincial election campaign, then-opposition leader Dalton McGuinty promised, "meaningful, broad-scale land-use planning" before he'd allow major development in the northern boreal.
Since winning power, however, McGuinty and his ministers have become advocates for expansion into the region.
Ramsay rejects a moratorium, but insists the north won't look like the south. "We're aware of the fragility of that part of the world."
No new towns will be built, he says. Outside workers will be housed in temporary camps. First Nations will lead the planning because "it's their territory. They're the occupants."
Pikanjikum - a community near the Manitoba border that's plagued by suicides and desperate for jobs for its young people - devised the first Far-North logging project, Ramsay notes.
In contrast with land south of the cutline, where entire forests are turned into paper or basic lumber at giant mills, Pikanjikum will cut fewer trees and convert them into coated posts and beams for Japanese house construction. Slow-growing northern wood is extremely tough, so the product will meet Japan's earthquake standards, the minister says.
"It's a lot better than the old culture of cut and saw." And, he suggests, it's the model for the Far North - "smaller production but value added."
Most important, he says, any commercial logging, or mines, roads and other projects, must be approved by First Nations. He has invited aboriginal leaders to a "Northern Table" to discuss land use planning.
But industry people - mining companies in particular - fear the government will deal with northern disputes as it handled the showdown in Caledonia. That's the Ontario town where natives blocked a road to protest a housing development on land they claim.
Queen's Park bought the land and negotiated, "implicitly accepting the occupiers' contention that Canadian courts have no jurisdiction over aboriginal lands or citizens," the industry newspaper Northern Miner complained this month.
It was "the worst example possible in dealing with aboriginal land claims," the paper said.
On the other side, environmentalists are equally unhappy.
"There's no vision of what the forest should look like in the future," says Anna Baggio, director of conservation land-use planning at the Toronto-based Wildlands League. "There's a void in leadership and policy," and a "development first" approach that will inevitably fuel more conflict.
Unless First Nations assert their rights, "it will open the floodgates," says Joan Kuyek, national co-ordinator of MiningWatch Canada, an environmental group that monitors the industry.
Rights are being asserted. Muskrat Dam, KI and seven other First Nations have declared a moratorium on development. KI also wants the courts to overturn the Ontario Mining Act, which gives prospectors virtually free access to most private land.
"We expect Ontario and industry to consult with us before development happens," says Stan Beardy, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which covers the Far North. "Right now, that's not happening."
However, Beardy says, Ramsay has promised to work out a new process for consultation while the Mining Act is reviewed.
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