Friday July 17, 2009
Posted by: Conor Mihell

A late June “mini shuffle” of government portfolios at Queen’s Park could put economic development above environmental concerns in the management of Ontario’s forests. On June 24, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that control of forest-related issues would be transferred from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM), the government agency responsible for promoting development in the sparsely populated 800,000 square kilometres north of Parry Sound and Pembroke.

On the surface, the transfer of forestry to MNDM seems logical. Almost 97 percent of Ontario’s 70.4 million hectares of forested land is located in northern Ontario. And according to Statistics Canada, 6.5 percent of the region’s workers are employed by the mining and forestry sectors. The creation of a one-stop government shop to promote forestry has the support of Ontario’s floundering logging industry and dying resource-based northern communities. But William Parker, a professor of forestry at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, says the transfer is “ill-conceived” because of the complex role MNR plays in forest management, ecology and research. What’s more, the vast majority of northern Ontario is Crown land, meaning that all citizens of Ontario, whether they live in Kapuskasing or Kingston, have an equal stake in its management and use.

MNR’s mandate includes “promoting healthy, sustainable ecosytems,” maintaining biodiversity and studying forest ecology. In contrast, MNDM’s main objective is to “promote economic growth and investment in northern Ontario.” The conflict is obvious, and MNDM’s long-standing role as a broker for mining companies highlights its lackluster environmental record. Ontario’s archaic Mining Act supports the notion that mining and exploration are the best use of land, regardless of its ecological impacts; whether the new Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry will give the same preferential treatment to logging waits to be seen.

Parker insists that putting business partnerships ahead of the environmental complexities of forest management would breach Ontario’s “bigger picture” responsibilities. On the other hand, Trevor Hesselink, the director of CPAWS Wildlands League’s forests program, believes separating forest management from economics might actually allow MNR to better achieve its stewardship mandate. “A lot of details [still] need to be provided,” says Hesselink. “In any case, it is a shake-up opportunity of a system that wasn’t necessarily working all that well to begin with.”