By Jen Baker

Over the past two years, there has been a surge in the staking of mining claims throughout Ontario. This is particularly evident in an area known as the Ring of Fire, some 240 kilometres west of James Bay, where an unchecked explosion in staking and exploration activity threatens up to 1.5 million hectares of a globally significant landscape.

While the southern boreal forest is already severely fragmented, the landscape criss-crossed by roads and cleared for industrial activity, the northern boreal forest remains ecologically intact. Indeed, it represents one of the last original forests remaining on the planet. Premier Dalton McGuinty promised in 2008 that at least half of this precious land mass and enormous carbon storehouse would be protected, and that land-use planning that emphasizes sustainable development would guide the future use of the other half.

Says Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature, “We expect that the Province will follow through on its promise. Right now, no one appears to be monitoring the situation in the James Bay Lowlands, which makes ecologically-sound land-use planning impossible.”

The James Bay Lowlands have an unusually high concentration of metals, including chromium, nickel, copper and zinc. Today, exploration and staking activities have reached a feverish pitch. Almost 40 junior and intermediate mining and exploration companies are active within the Ring of Fire. Canada Chrome, a subsidiary of KWG Resources Inc., holds claims and has announced its intention to develop a 200-kilometre rail corridor.

None of these large-scale projects, save the transportation corridor, is subject to a full environmental assessment. Instead, staking, exploration and plans to build infrastructure are proceeding apace. To date, the Province has failed to hold any public consultations and First Nations communities are not leading the decision-making process regarding development in their traditional territories in spite of Premier McGuinty’s intent to enshrine a new respect and working relationship with First Nations in the Far North.

Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Michael Gravelle has been quoted in the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal as saying that the ministry is working on environmental issues and economic development opportunities in the Ring of Fire. Just how they are working on environmental issues is not clear as development is occurring faster than scientists and First Nations communities can gather information on ecologically sensitive fish, wildlife and habitats and assess potential development impacts.

“We must hold our government accountable for safeguarding the boreal,” says Schultz. “The fate of this region is being determined now. The boreal must remain rich in biodiversity. It must also meet the needs of the communities that live there with projects that are identified through regional and community-based land use planning and achieve world-class sustainability standards.”