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David Sone
David Sone from Earthroots attaches a poster along a portage trail. Ramsey Hart photo.

#MiningBalanceFail: Ontario Mining Leases vs. Largest Remaining Old Growth Red Pine Forest

In 2008, following a period of particularly high profile and intense conflicts over the rights of the mining industry and the interests of Indigenous peoples, private property owners, and environmental protection, the Ontario Government released a discussion paper that acknowledged the need to reform the province’s outdated legal framework for mineral exploration and mining. The discussion paper was titled “Finding a Balance”. The province has since brought in a new Mining Act with claims of modernization.

Has Ontario achieved a balance between mineral rights and other interests? Closing much of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug traditional territory to mineral exploration had given me some hope that maybe we were getting there. After spending several days earlier this month in the old growth forests surrounding Wolf Lake (in the south western corner of Ontario’s heralded Temagami region) it’s as clear as the lake’s crystal-blue waters that a consistent balance has not yet been achieved.

While modest gains were made in the modernization of the Mining Act the necessary shift in attitude within the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines has not occurred. MNDM continues to hold mining as a potential land use above all else.

The red pine forests surrounding Wolf Lake are by best accounts the largest remaining tract of old-growth red pine ANYWHERE. Despite the obvious and long appreciated ecological significance of the forest MNDM has continued to renew a mining lease in the heart of the Wolf Lake old growth. Existing protection as a Forest Reserve (that does not exclude mineral exploration or mining) was narrowly kept lat fall. Minister of Natural Resources Michael Gravelle was quoted in the Toronto Star speaking about the "balance" he thinks the government has achieved by keeping the Forest Reserve status.

But recently the MNDM had an opportunity to have one of the mining leases at Wolf Lake lapse but instead renewed it. This is despite the fact that the Mining Act says that the holder of a mining lease must either be mining or making “a reasonable effort to bring the property into production” and the holder of the lease – Flag Resources – is doing neither. To date the area has shown no real potential for mining.

I was at Wolf Lake to join activists and campaigners, canoeists, and scientists in an effort to further document the ecological character and significance of the area. There was hope that finding sensitive “at risk” species could further bolster efforts or provide legal tools to protect the forest. I was doing some birding and documenting breeding evidence of whatever birds I could find. The abundance of species – especially pine warblers – was impressive and one morning we were treated to an amazing pre-dawn chorus of Swainson’s thrushes surrounding our campsite. Only one “at risk” species was found – a female Canada warbler feeding her young. Not likely enough to tip the scales for protection but along with the other records hopefully a modest contribution to the overall campaign for the forest.

The fact that the largest remaining old growth red pine forest – which is not all that large, and which has not shown any real potential for mining – remains under threat of clearing, road building, litter, oil and fuel spills from mineral exploration is outrageous (see some photo evidence here). The fact that those concerned about the future of the forest have to scramble for ways to protect it is profoundly frustrating.

Fortunately this issue has galvanized a wide range of stakeholders and has received overwhelmingly positive media coverage from local, regional and national media. While no “show stoppers” were identified during the recent effort, the forest is home to an impressive abundance and diversity of wildlife. Beyond individual species, the forest has an irreplaceable role as a natural living laboratory and classroom. Three separate camp canoe trips paddled across the lake one morning and regardless of their backgrounds everyone in our excursion appreciated the beauty, majesty, and integrity of the forest.

Protecting this small but hugely significant ecological gem is no threat to the mining industry, but the province’s failure to live up to its commitments definitely poses a threat to the government’s claims to having reached any kind of balance between mining and so many other values this forest holds – the most important of which is its own value to just be there and continue evolving with minimal interference from us humans who continue to meddle across the vast majority of the landscape.

For a more detailed overview of the issues see this excellent report by Earth Roots for the Wolf Lake Coalition.

And here are some recent media articles on the issue:

and an older article from the Toronto Star: Toronto Star: Ontario Breaks Temagami Pledge