by Caroline Schultz
The business of conservation requires perseverance and endurance. Our goals are mostly long-term and can take years to achieve. Usually the conservation community needs to be satisfied with short-term gains that are baby steps toward what we hope will be a greener and more sustainable future. So Premier Dalton McGuinty’s July 14 announcement that his government will protect 225,000 square kilometres of Ontario’s northern boreal region (half the area north of 51 degrees latitude) was the sort of rare long-term commitment that warranted an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response and much celebration. It is unprecedented in Canada. Ontario Nature has worked long and hard to achieve this commitment through building public awareness and support, collaborating with northern First Nations communities, and compiling scientific data and evidence to support conservation-based land-use planning.
Ontario’s northern boreal landscape is characterized by an abundance of wildlife and fish, including an estimated quarter billion breeding birds, some of which are already in decline, and threatened woodland caribou and wolverine. It is also a globally important carbon store that the government estimates to represent 97 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Particularly important are its peatlands, which contain thousands of years of stored carbon.
A number of industrial activities are exerting rapidly increasing pressure on the northern boreal region of the province. Logging, hydro development and mineral exploration and mining are all poised to open up the north and indeed have already begun to encroach into this area. The greatest immediate threat is mineral staking, exploration and, eventually, fully operating mines. Conor Mihell describes in startling detail the stranglehold exploration and mining have on the entire province in his article “Mine fields” on page 18. Rooted in the antiquated Mining Act, passed in 1873 (some 20 years before the Klondike gold rush), he documents the woefully lacking legislative and policy frameworks that allow mining and exploration to trump environmental protection and the rights of First Nations and individual citizens. The recent spate of government approved mineral staking is but one example of how the status quo is allowing a frontier mentality in the treatment of the northern boreal region.
Critics charge that the announcement lacks detail, such as exactly which lands will be protected areas and by what criteria they will be identified. No one thinks that achieving the best protection for this region will be easy. Gathering and analyzing data will go on for years, and numerous debates will occur with government resource managers and stakeholders who at times may seem to have irreconcilable differences. But there is a lot to be hopeful about. We have the commitment to the big goals for land-use planning, the broad framework under which it will be undertaken and the promise that it will be informed by sound science. The commitment to review the Mining Act promises to ensure that mining potential across Ontario is developed in a sustainable way.
And we also have a short-term gain – a hold on further industrial development until all values and interests have been identified and weighed.
Finally, the real business of protecting Ontario’s northern boreal landscape begins.
Caroline Schultz is the executive director of Ontario Nature.
Cecily Ross has written on a wide range of topics – relationships, the arts, health and food. Her move to the country inspired her latest article, “The nature of my pond”, an exploration of her pond’s unique ecosystem. “All at once the workings of the world in my backyard became fascinating,” says Ross. “Writing for ON Nature has allowed me to delve into the natural world in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.” Ross is a senior editor at The Globe and Mail.
While researching the two dominant political approaches to reducing emissions (carbon tax and cap-and-trade) for the Last Word column (“Fear factor,” page 46), Edward Keenan was astounded by the dearth of compelling arguments in favour of a cap-and-trade system, save that it might be more politically viable than a tax. “As is the case with so many pieces of ‘conventional wisdom,’” says Keenan, “everyone seems to acknowledge that the public won’t accept any argument that makes a lick of sense.” Keenan is the city editor of Eye Weekly.