Battling the bureaucracy

by Caroline Schultz

The lush Ogoki Forest encompasses 10,876 square kilometres of boreal forest in northwestern Ontario and provides superb habitat for woodland caribou, a species at risk that depends on this region for its survival. As Conor Mihell notes in his excellent article (“Why we can’t save this forest”) examining the opaque and, at times, impenetrable environmental assessment (EA) process, Ontario Nature in collaboration with other conservation groups made repeated requests to the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) last year for a full EA of a proposal to log this vast tract of virgin woods.

MOE turned down all seven requests in favour of the interests forwarded by the Ministry of Natural Resources, which supported logging in the area – a response that clearly revealed the government’s internal conflict of interest. Despite our best efforts, the Ogoki Forest is being cut down.

Anne Bell, our senior director of conservation and education, points out that there has only been one comprehensive EA for forestry in Ontario since the Environmental Assessment Act was created in 1976. Robin MacIntyre, a longtime member of Ontario Nature, knows all about that unique case, as she led the fight to protect a huge expanse of old-growth forest containing 350-year-old red and white pine trees. Despite nearly a decade of dogged research, monitoring and intervention on MacIntyre’s part, that EA was never completed. The government turned much of the area into a patchwork of parks, and the remainder is being logged. MacIntyre is understandably devastated – as are so many Ontario Nature members, naturalist groups and ordinary citizens who have confronted development projects they know threaten irreplaceable habitats and ecosystems, only to be defeated by an EA process that typically comes down on the side of the developer.

The act is a flawed piece of legislation and the system is vulnerable to corruption. Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, has called the compromised quality of environmental reviews a “tragedy.” The term “environmental assessment” gives citizens a sense that a strong safety net will protect the environment. In practice, the EA process elicits feelings of impotence and frustration.

We need to overhaul the EA system in Ontario. An independent panel should hold hearings for more contentious cases. Large government programs should not be exempt from EA as they so frequently are now. Commissioner Miller describes EA as “one of those grey, blurry areas of modern bureaucratic practice: often misunderstood, sometimes misused, but mostly ignored by the average citizen.” We can do better than blurry. A reformed system should reflect the original goal of the act: “the betterment of the people [through] … the wise management of the environment.”

Contributors

Brad BadeltWhile researching his article (“Plan bee”) at the Toronto Bee Cooperative, science and travel writer Brad Badelt asked his guide how often he’d been stung: “Hundreds of times,” was the reply. Says Badelt, “It definitely wasn’t the answer I was hoping for!” Between stings, Badelt learned that bees are socially complex insects. “There is a well-defined set of roles and behaviours within bee colonies that ensure the hive survives.” Badelt has written for the Vancouver Sun, the National Post and This magazine.

Anson LiawAnson Liaw was impressed by the quality of the winning essays that inspired his illustrations for the fourth annual youth writing contest feature. “All of these entries were so inspiring.” Liaw was particularly moved by the submission from first-place winner Ellen of Waterloo. “Feelings of helplessness, horror, emptiness and hope all intertwine in Ellen’s essay.” Liaw’s illustrations have appeared in many publications, including Time magazine.

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