by Conor Mihell

A seven-year land-use debate now near conclusion in northern Ontario could result in the world’s longest stretch of protected freshwater coastline. Negotiations between the Partnership for Public Lands (of which Ontario Nature is a member), Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM) and Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to finalize the Lake Superior Highlands Conservation Reserve – intended to protect part of the Lake Superior coastline – were kick-started by a proposal last fall to expand territory belonging to the Michipicoten First Nation, near Wawa, Ontario.

Renowned among sea kayakers and canoeists, the massive Pukaskwa peninsula sprawls across 180 kilometres of Lake Superior’s eastern coastline, from Wawa up to near Marathon. While a 90-kilometre swath of shore is already protected because it falls within Pukaskwa National Park boundaries, the coastline stretching east of the park to Michipicoten Bay is primarily Crown land and a patchwork of small provincial wilderness areas, parks and conservation reserves.

The establishment of the Lake Superior Highlands Conservation Reserve came out of the Ontario Living Legacy initiative in 1999 to protect the coastline between Pukaskwa and the Makwa River, 15 kilometres west of Michipicoten. But so far, land-use issues have prevented the reserve from being finalized. Once the land-use issues are resolved and boundaries determined, the reserve will safeguard a corridor of boreal forest for a remnant population of woodland caribou, an at-risk species, and protect unique arctic vegetation.

Currently, the Partnership for Public Lands is negotiating with MNDM and MNR to have 21 mining claims and numerous logging reserves in the area surrendered to the conservation reserve. The mining sector is willing to give up all but one of the claims on Lake Superior, and MNR recently indicated its intentions to set aside areas for logging outside the conservation reserve boundaries. CPAWS-Wildlands League director Evan Ferrari is most concerned with the outstanding mining claim; he says that, if developed, the claim could have a significant negative impact on the area’s biodiversity.

“The mindset seems to be to stake claims to a watercourse where you can dump mine effluent,” says Ferrari. “That makes us nervous.”

Plans to further expand the proposed boundaries of the Lake Superior Highlands Conservation Reserve occurred in conjunction with the expansion of the Michipicoten First Nation. At the First Nation’s request, the eastern boundary of the conservation reserve would be extended eastward to abut on the First Nation boundary at Dore River. If the proposed boundaries are approved, the conservation reserve will cover 46,734 hectares.

Some existing land uses, including hunting, fishing and trapping, are allowed in conservation reserves. But once these negotiations are complete, mining, logging and hydroelectric developments will be prohibited in Lake Superior Highlands.

Ferrari says he expects final designation after the fall provincial election. For now, he says, “it’s an issue that needs to get on people’s radar screens.”