The Ring of Fire is a small piece of the boreal forest that covers Ontario’s far north and stretches across northern Canada, Russia and Alaska. No part of the boreal forest is less touched by human activity than Ontario’s huge swath, totalling 450,000 square kilometres, an area slightly larger than Newfoundland and Labrador. According to the final report, released this year, by the provincially appointed Far North Science Advisory Panel, the far north is “one of the world’s largest, most intact ecological systems … providing ecosystem services far beyond its borders.”

A soggy land of black spruce, jack pine and white birch, with peat bogs along the James and Hudson bay coasts, Ontario’s far north is home to 11 species at risk, including bald eagles and wolverines, and contains rare habitat for sea-run brook trout. Each summer, hundreds of millions of migratory songbirds breed in Ontario’s boreal forest, and the coastlines are internationally recognized sanctuaries for Canada and snow geese and several varieties of ducks and shorebirds. The region’s peat bogs store an estimated 20 to 30 billion tonnes of carbon and absorb toxic mercury emitted by industries around the world.

The boreal forest’s Carbon storehouse

The peat bogs that cover much of Ontario’s far north are cold and poor in nutrients. They are also waterlogged, so when plants die they sink into an oxygen-free zone. That makes the bogs a capacious storehouse for carbon: they grow less plant matter than areas farther south, but the lack of oxygen in peat bogs ensure that what is in them decomposes very slowly. And the bog plants – such as sphagnum moss and Labrador tea – decompose more slowly than plants in less extreme habitats.

All this means that carbon stays in the boggy ground rather than being released into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. Until, that is, the bogs are disturbed: when they are drained or bulldozed, the dead material, built up over 6,000 to 7,000 years, is exposed to oxygen and decays rapidly.

That, people fear, is what might happen in Ontario’s far north, as a result of development and because the peat itself might be mined.

The recently released final report of the Far North Science Advisory Panel suggests the region contains 35.3 billion tonnes of carbon – 26 billion in the lowlands west of James and Hudson bays, the rest in the forests. These amounts are roughly double the estimates of a decade ago, says Nigel Roulet, professor of biogeosciences at Montreal’s McGill University, who contributed to the panel report.

According to Roulet, “the numbers are still guesses, but much more informed guesses,” as measurement of the area and depth of the bogs continues, through satellite data and field work. “With more information,” Roulet says, “probably the numbers will go up.” That 35.3 billion tonnes might seem puny when the global total of carbon stored in living and dead plant matter is said to be 2,300 billion tonnes. But the advisory panel’s estimate is close to the net 30 billion tonnes that result each year from human activity and are upsetting the natural balance of emissions and absorption that has kept greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere relatively stable for millennia is causing climate change.

Mining, road building and other activities would disturb the bogs. Toronto-based Peat Resources Ltd. is a more direct threat: the company says it has identified 200 million tonnes of “fuel-grade” peat that could be stripped off the land and converted into pellets to power electricity-generating stations.

“That’s an environmental disaster waiting to happen,” says Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education.

The Ontario Power Authority, which manages the province’s electricity generating system, considers peat to be biomass and thus a renewable resource. The Ministry of Natural Resources considers peat to be non-renewable. Ontario Nature is among 14 environmental groups that want the provincial government to issue a clear directive that peat is to be treated as a non-renewable resource.

“Neither the extraction nor use of peat as an alternative energy source is consistent with the government’s larger agendas to tackle climate change, conserve biodiversity or promote sustainable development in the Far North,” the groups stated in a letter to the natural resources and energy ministers.

Peat “may come back, but it would take 7,000 years,” Roulet says. “Calling it renewable is a great stretch.”

“It renews so slowly that it’s another form of fossil fuel,” agrees Bell. “It can’t be renewed in any time scale that’s meaningful to humans.”

Peter Gorrie

With the notable exception of the De Beers open-pit Victor diamond mine midway up the James Bay coast, all of Ontario north of, roughly, the 51st parallel has been off limits to industry. Thirty-four isolated communities dot the region where some 25,000 Native people live, and the only source of employment is a handful of government-funded jobs. Drug and alcohol abuse are rampant; the youth suicide rate is among the world’s highest.

For decades, people who work in the mining business were aware that mineral deposits existed in this difficult to access region. Not until 2002, however, did miners in search of additional veins of diamonds discover a rich source of nickel, copper, platinum and palladium, used in, among other things, electronic devices. Then, in September 2007, Richard Nemis, head of Noront Resources Ltd., a junior mining company, discovered a circular deposit full of the sought-after minerals. Nemis was a fan of the late country music star Johnny Cash and dubbed his exploration camp “the Ring of Fire” after one of the singer’s biggest hit songs. The name caught on and was quickly applied to the entire crescent-shaped region where minerals lie close to the earth’s surface, having been pushed upward as a result of millions of years of heat and pressure.

The following year, when Montreal-based Freewest Resources Canada Inc. discovered chromite – an essential ingredient of stainless steel that’s not found in commercially valuable quantities anywhere else in North America – the rush was truly on.

At the same time, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his government’s intention to preserve half the province’s far north as wilderness and require that development in the other half await regional land-use plans that would minimize environmental damage and bring economic, social and political benefits to local people. Those goals are enshrined in the Far North Act, which the Ontario legislature approved in principal last spring.

The premier’s pledge was lauded as an ecological victory despite being a development scheme. Environmentalists were generous in their praise, claiming that the assurance that planning would precede development was a vast improvement over industry’s more customary heavy-booted march into frontier zones.

The environmental community is less sanguine today. Although the Far North Act has yet to be passed and not a single regional plan outlining where and how development should proceed has been drafted, mineral exploration continues at a feverish pace in the Ring of Fire. More than 30 mining companies – from Canada, the United States and China – have staked thousands of claims in the region located 240 kilometres west of James Bay.

Mining companies – anticipating enough ore to keep them busy for a century – appear confident in the anticipated windfall. Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. paid $240 million to acquire one potential mine and is spending tens of millions more to acquire a controlling interest in mining company Spider Resources Inc., which holds a 26.5 percent interest in a 40-million tonne chromite deposit. Cliffs plans to spend $800 million to build its first mine, and Spider Resources estimates it could cost billions to develop its find. KWG Resources Inc. is investing $14 million to study the feasibility of a 350-kilometre railway line to connect with tracks farther south. Noront says exploration activities to determine whether a mine would make economic sense will cost at least $40 million. Even in an industry prone to hyperbolic declarations, these are impressive numbers.

The provincial government is equally enthusiastic about the mining boom. The Speech from the Throne last March described the Ring of Fire as a key part of the “Open Ontario” economic growth strategy. The ring contains “one of the largest chromite deposits in the world” and “the most promising mining opportunity in Canada in a century. [Our] government is fully committed to working with northerners, Aboriginal communities and mining partners to fully realize [its] potential.” Later that month, the provincial budget allocated $45 million over three years for skills training “to help Aboriginal Peoples and northern Ontarians participate in and benefit from emerging economic development opportunities, such as the Ring of Fire.”

So what happened to the promise to protect the northern boreal? The government insists it remains committed to conservation and sustainable development. “Real balance is needed,” says Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Michael Gravelle. “But it is more than possible to move ahead with this in an environmentally sustainable way.”

But Ontario Nature and other concerned parties question the feasibility of Gravelle’s claim, given that it is quite possible that none of the proposed mining projects will be subjected to thorough environmental assessments.

According to Cheryl Chetkiewicz, associate conservation scientist of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, all projects should have assessments that include baseline studies showing the environment as it is so that changes can be measured and mitigated. “By the time these projects are built, it’s too late to figure out what they might have done.” If plans were drawn up that determined the best use of the landscape and required environmental assessments, then this glaring absence could be rectified. “Proceeding with development on that potentially immense scale ahead of region-wide land-use planning is putting the cart before the horse,” says Schultz. “It forecloses on other options that might emerge from the planning process.”

Any assessments – even on projects as large as Cliffs Natural Resources’ declared “world-class chromite mine” – will focus only on individual developments, without looking at their cumulative or wider-scale impacts.

Fish populations in the north could be decimated if roads increase access to lakes and angling or netting increase, says Jenni McDermid, a freshwater conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Tailings ponds will pollute lakes and rivers. Draining mine sites will probably impair water quality or interfere with natural water levels that fish require for breeding and spawning.

Already, “several major projects have actually reached the feasibility or engineering stage,” the panel report notes. “While none has received official approval, planning for these corridor projects is now well advanced outside … planning processes and prior to the passage of the [Far North Act].” KWG’s railway line is the only one directly linked to the Ring of Fire, but two other developments cited in the report – a 430-kilometre high-voltage transmission line west of the mining area and a year-round road to connect communities along the James Bay coast to Ontario’s highway network – illustrate the problem.

People need to look at the big picture, argues Tim Gray, an expert on forestry and land use at the Ivey Foundation. “It’s not just a question of deciding which areas you want to protect and writing off the rest. You have to set thresholds in the areas where development will occur.” What are the impacts of all the roads that will be built? How many mines are proposed, and will the ore be extracted from open pits or underground shafts? Ontario’s far north is an intricate web of waterways. What will happen far downstream from the mining operations? Without environmental assessments, no one is sure that any of these questions will be answered. “There are cumulative impacts with all the stresses, none of which are being taken into account,” points out Schultz.

“I don’t think anyone has a good handle on what would happen in that landscape,” echoes McDermid.