[Northern Ontario] Caribou strategy draws substantial criticism – by Ron Grech (Timmins Daily Press – May 5, 2010)

Ron Grech is a reporter for The Daily Press, the city of Timmins newspaper. Contact the writer at  rgrech@thedailypress.ca

By designating huge tracts of the boreal forest as caribou habitat, the Ontario government will be exposing forestry to a litigious, bureaucratic nightmare, say industry leaders and northern municipal politicians.

“If they define the entire range as caribou habitat, they will be turning forest management over to the court systems because if you want to operate anywhere that is considered habitat, you will have to go to the government to get a permit,” explained Scott Jackson, manager of forest policy with the Ontario Forest Industries Association. “That process is open to frivolous legal challenges. So anyone who wants to stop your operations can start a legal challenge that will probably end up being decided in a courtroom in downtown Toronto.”

The Woodland Caribou Recovery Strategy establishes a line roughly parallel to Highway 11, identifying much of the forest areas north of that as caribou habitat. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has blocked off an expansive stretch that extends across Northern Ontario from the Manitoba border to Quebec.

The strategy clearly aims to not only preserve existing caribou habitat but expand their range and reintroduce them in more southerly regions where they haven’t roamed in decades.

“There haven’t been caribou sightings in some of those areas for over 40 or 50 years,” said George Graham, a forester and managing partner with Thunderhouse Forest Services in Hearst.

The impact on wood supply for the industry remains to be seen.

“The MNR has not come out with the hard details of how it’s going to play on the ground,” said Graham, whose company does consulting and silviculture work for Hearst Forest Management Inc. “What we’re hearing for the forest industry is anywhere from a 20- to 50-per-cent reduction in wood supply.”

Even if the ministry decides to allow forestry within areas designated as caribou habitat, Graham said it will most certainly lead to increased costs due to additional permitting processes and red tape.

“You have to think of the time it takes to get approval, especially if you’re dealing with seasonal timing issues. You have to put people in place and have them working on that process to make sure things happen. It raises costs to the industry, raises the cost to bring wood to the mill.”

Hearst Mayor Roger Sigouin is alarmed. “If the government is going to put in regulations not allowing us to go in the bush, that’s the end of it. We might as well close every town along Highway 11 from Longlac to Matheson, he commented.

More than 40 per cent of the labour force in Sigouin’s community is out of work and Northeastern Ontario already has the highest jobless rate in the province.

Sigouin said if the province proceeds to convert Northern Ontario into an expansive wildlife preserve, the level of unemployment in the area will only get worse.

The mayor said it’s frustrating the MNR persists in pushing new environmental regulations without providing peer-reviewed scientific data to support it.

A perception being echoed in communities from Timmins to Hearst is that the MNR has been heavily influenced in drafting its Endangered Species Act by a special interest environmentalist lobby. That view has been reinforced by the lack of public meetings and limited opportunities for the public to offer feedback.

“The feeling is that Queen’s Park is not listening to people in areas most affected by these decisions,” said Graham. “There’s been no consultation or transparency around the process. From what I’ve seen, most local residents knew nothing about the caribou developments until now. They are only starting to clue in because the mayors are trying to make the issue transparent.”

Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey has publicly countered these claims, saying the MNR consulted with the forest industry, public and scientists and provided plenty of opportunities for public input through the ministry’s online Environmental Registry.

However, Graham said, the Environmental Bill of Rights “is a faceless, non-committal means for government to gather public input without a requirement to advertise through other more direct media” such as newspapers and radio. “The EBR also puts no obligation on government to reply or demonstrate how comments were used in decision-making. For all anyone knows, comments are going into a recycle bin.”

Even with the regulations still in development, special interest groups are telling the government to stop any “further industrial development” or “expansion of forestry” in most areas identified by the MNR as roaming grounds for woodland caribou.

“Hearst Forest has been managing for caribou for years, in the absence of this legislation,” Graham said. “We’ve proven forestry operations and caribou can co-exist.”

The fact is, Scott Jackson re-iterated, “We already have standards in place, guidelines to ensure there is sufficient caribou habitat on the landscape. From a forestry perspective, we’ve been doing it since the early 1990s.”

Timmins Mayor Tom Laughren said this is a point that needs to be reinforced to counter claims being made by special interest groups.

“People who work in Northern Ontario have been good stewards of the land and Ontario forestry companies have been world leaders in environmental standards,” the Timmins mayor said. “I don’t think we preach that enough.”

Laughren said the province’s draft position on woodland caribou has unified Northern Ontario communities against Queen’s Park.

“That’s one of the big reasons why we have tried to put this coalition of mayors together,” he said. “We’re continually seeing legislation being passed at Queen’s Park that impedes our future and excludes us from opportunities. People in Northeastern Ontario are just fed up with this.”

He said the Northeastern mayors have joined industry leaders in lobbying government ministers to stop passing legislation that is insensitive to northern economies.

“We have to make sure we get our message across and make our provincial and federal people aware of how it will affect us.”

Laughren said there is a sense of determination among municipal leaders to get their points across.

“This is a fight we must win. This lobby effort has to be successful; otherwise it’s going to be another tough pill for us to swallow as it relates to our competitiveness and our future. Our future is dependant on combining this beautiful area and the rich resources that we have.”

The Northeastern Ontario Municipal Association passed a resolution in early February requesting the MNR relocate its designated southern boundary for caribou habitat northwards.