What went wrong with the Environmental Assessment Act? Conor Mihell investigates how a law that was meant to protect the environment ended up helping industry.
by Conor Mihell
Across a table piled high with spiral-bound reports, binders and yellowed newspaper clippings, Robin MacIntyre’s soft, friendly brown eyes harden as she describes her “last-ditch effort” to stop logging in one of the largest contiguous stretches of old-growth forest in Ontario. Fifteen years after a flawed and incomplete environmental assessment (EA) of forestry operations in a remote area northeast of Sault Ste. Marie, only about one-fifth of MacIntyre’s beloved cradle of lush, ancient, mixed-wood wilderness remains undisturbed. Logging roads and clearcuts mar the rest. “We saw the area as having the significance of a biosphere reserve,” she says, citing the importance of old-growth forest as stopover habitat for migrating birds. “For me, it was a place where compromise wasn’t an option.”
MacIntyre, a local lodge owner and Ontario Nature member who maintains a network of ski and hiking trails on Crown land near her property, was one of seven area residents who, in the late 1980s, called for an in-depth study of how proposed logging, sanctioned by the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), would affect the Algoma Headwaters. The area is home to 43 species of mammals, 197 species of birds and such rare wildlife as Blanding’s turtles, bald eagles and least bitterns. The communities of 350-year-old white and red pine around Megisan Lake rival the celebrated Temagami and Algonquin forests in size and age. In 1991, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) agreed to conduct an environmental assessment, a process ostensibly intended to study and weigh the environmental effect of development before it occurs, considering such issues as the need for the given project and less harmful alternatives, and encouraging consultation with neighbours and other stakeholders.
The subsequent years were an eye-opener for MacIntyre, who says she was “naive enough” to assume the assessment would probe the potential harm to the area’s fragile ecology. She was floored to realize that the EA “was assessing industry, not the environment.” MNR set the parameters of the studies and, according to MacIntyre, put priority on finding plentiful timber for the logging companies within reasonable distance of local sawmills. The EA was never completed; in 1999, the government decided to turn much of the 50,000-hectare area into provincial parks. On the rest, logging carried on as planned.
Still, the Megisan Lake EA was a milestone, because it was the province’s first – and, to this day, its only – full assessment of forestry activities on Crown land. Since 1994, logging plans have been subject to a fast-tracked version of EA. “Back then, things like endangered species and climate change weren’t even on the radar,” says Trevor Hesselink, director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Wildlands League forest program. “We’ve been moving forward with policies that are reliant on old assumptions, and we’re applying them to a vast landscape without understanding the implications.”
Last fall, for example, MOE turned down seven requests from the public and environmental organizations, including Ontario Nature, for a detailed EA of timber harvesting in northwestern Ontario’s Ogoki Forest, a vast tract of virgin boreal forest and an important woodland caribou habitat at the northern frontier of current forestry operations. In justifying its decision, MOE concluded that MNR had applied “the best available science” in its planning and, after imposing minor restrictions on road building, allowed logging to proceed. “The caribou piece was what we were all screaming about,” says Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education. “The point of EA is to look at issues like these more thoroughly. But there has only ever been one comprehensive EA for forestry in Ontario. What does that tell us?”