Protection in Ontario?
by Tony Weis
A beautiful, newly established
protected area in southeastern Ontariothe Mellon Lake
Conservation Reservecould soon be the site of a new
large-scale granite mine.
Sound confusing? While the
thought of a quarry in a conservation area may seem paradoxical,
this prospect is the predictable outcome of Ontario's Living
Legacy settlement, and has the potential to re-define what
environmental protection means throughout the province. As
such, environmentalists across Ontario have their attention
squarely set on Mellon Lake, which they are viewing with a
combination of anger and fear.
Located about 30 kilometres
north of Napanee, the Mellon Lake Conservation Reserve is
a very important natural area. Although relatively small (5,540
hectares), its forests and wetlands are home to a number of
rare or significant species, such as the little prickly pear
cactus (opuntia fragilis), roughly 1,000 kilometres away from
the next closest colony, and the five-lined skink, Ontario's
only lizard and a species that has recently been designated
Mellon Lake also provides
critical refuge for other rare species, including the prairie
warbler, shining sumac, bulbostyle (a sedge), Case's ladies'
tresses (an orchid), poke milkweed, pink polygala, northern
downy violet, hoary vervain, swaying rush, and the spotted
Given this ecological significance,
Mellon Lake was officially designated as an Area of Natural
and Scientific Interest (ANSI) in 1983, and received its new
designation as a Conservation Reserve in March 1999 as part
of Ontario's Living Legacy settlement.
However, under the Aggregate
Resources Act, a Thornhill company is currently seeking approval
from Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to proceed
with full-scale production of a granite mine in the heart
of the Mellon Lake Conservation Reserve. The production plan
entails extracting 20-tonne blocks of granite, to be shipped
for processing in Europe, as well as the removal of the ensuing
aggregate (gravel). This application follows a permit that
was issued on March 23, 2000 by the Ministry of Northern Development
and Mines, which has already allowed test blasting and the
removal of huge blocks of granite to proceed within the area.
Some of the waste rock produced
by this, it has been recently discovered, was bulldozed over
a cliff into a valley. Further, an access road to the mine
site has also been constructed across Crown lands (apparently
without a permit from the MNR), and part of the area has been
staked with No Trespassing signs. Already, the integrity of
this small, fragile, and significant ecological space has
been compromised, and if mining does proceed inside the reserve,
as appears imminent, the ensuing disturbance and fragmentation
would be devastating. Yet, as important as defending Mellon
Lake is for its own sake, the environmental implications of
this case extend much farther.
To understand the frightening
precedent that Mellon Lake could set, we must first examine
the Lands for Life process by which it, and Ontario's Living
Legacy were established. While the Mike Harris government
is once again squandering public funds on self-congratulatory
propaganda amidst otherwise austere funding cuts - this time
trying to dupe Ontarians into believing that the Living Legacy
represents a commitment to future generations and the environment
through a highly deceptive direct mail and TV ad campaign
- the reality is that this settlement was an environmental
nightmare, and made confrontations like Mellon Lake inevitable.
The Lands for Life planning
process was established by the Harris Tories in 1997 to restructure
the way that public lands are managed across most of the southern
half of Ontario; the planning area covered 46 million hectares,
or nearly half of Ontario's land mass.
With the planning boards
dominated by representatives from forestry and mining companies,
there was almost no public input throughout most of the process.
Inexcusably, First Nations communities within the area were
completely excluded from negotiations. It was with little
surprise, then, that these boards initially recommended that
virtually all of the public land in the planning area be turned
over to industrial operators to log and mine on long-term
contracts, while the percentage of land protected in the area
would receive a meagre increase, from 7.5 to 9 percent.
However, fearing a public
outcry on the eve of the last provincial election (particularly
in the wake of their widespread assault on environmental protection
throughout their first term), the Tories brought some conservative
environmental organizations to the planning table at the last
minute. The secret negotiations that followed produced the
Living Legacy settlement in March 1999, which increased the
percentage of land designated as protected in Ontario to 12
Having feared a much worse
outcome, the environmental organizations involved in the negotiationsthe
Partnership for Public Lands (the World Wildlife Fund, the
Ontario Wildlands League, and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists)was
quick to claim victory, as though they had rescued Ontario's
environment from the jaws of calamity. Yet, while the Living
Legacy was not the worst-case scenario initially feared, this
settlement was hardly cause for such celebration (which was
particularly ill-timed, serving to obscure the Tories' abysmal
environmental record on the eve of the last provincial election).
The settlement included
no efforts to address the social and landed injustices facing
First Nations communities. Of the 46 million hectares in the
planning area, only 2.4 million (5 percent) were set aside
for new protection. Management of the other 95 percent was
ceded to logging and mining companies on long-term leases.
This transfer of public lands management from government ministries
to private, profit-seeking operators has been compared to
putting the "fox in charge of the henhouse" by the Canadian
Environmental Law Association.
Compounding the obvious
and very negative environmental implications of corporate
self-management is the fact that the monitoring and regulatory
capacities of the Ministries of Environment and of Natural
Resources have been severely compromised by spending cutbacks
and legislative changes throughout Harris' two terms (the
environmental impact of such cutbacks was most evident this
summer in the Walkerton tragedy). In short, one might reasonably
ask whether the Living Legacy glass is five percent full (the
Partnership's position), or 95 percent empty (or rather clear-cut,
mined, and roaded). But even the five percent remainingthe
new parkshas a decidedly murky hue, open to bloodsport,
and now potentially strewn with mining rubble.
As the current Tory ads highlight,
Ontario's Living Legacy did establish 378 new protected areas.
What they don't say is that the vast majority of these new
areas are relatively small and very poorly connected. Further,
the settlement created only 13 new nature reserves (totalling
a mere 48,711 hectares, or only two percent of the new protected
land) and no new wilderness parks (the largest and most significant
ecological designations), which are the two strictest forms
of protection. Thus, from a conservation biology perspective,
Ontario's Living Legacy effectively produced a series of small
and unconnected habitat patches in an industrial sea of mining,
clear-cutting, and mono-forestrynot a good situation
for the movement of species and the preservation of healthy
ecological functioning. The ads also fail to mention that
most of these new "protected areas" are not protected against
mining, sports hunting, commercial trapping, and industrial
recreation like snowmobiling, and thus do not even measure
up to international standards of what a park actually is.
Around the same time as the
Living Legacy deal was announced with much fanfare, the Tories
also quietly reached a second accord with the mining industry.
Because mining was not explicitly forbidden in the new protected
areas by the Living Legacy settlement (strangely, the negotiating
environmental groups treated mining as a separate battle they
would fight after the parks were established), the Tories
were able to promise the mining industry that the claims staked
in most of the new protected areas would be honoured, and
new mining claims allowed if made within a certain time (beginning
a gold rush-like scramble to stake out claims in these new
areas). Ominously, more than half of the new Living Legacy
"protected areas" now have mining claims staked within them.
Which is why the first attempt at pursuing these claims has
such enormous implications for what environmental protection
means in Ontario.
This is also why it is somewhat
surprising that a mining company would choose a site so close
to urban areas and in the heart of cottage country for the
precedent-setting case, particularly with so many claims staked
in remote locations far less accessible to "meddlesome" activists
and away from the "vested interests" of cottagers.
Interestingly, the same
environmental organizations which showed so little concern
for the way that protection was defined in the Living Legacy
settlement are now desperately scrambling to keep mining out
of Mellon Lake, well aware of the slippery slope that could
Gregor Beck of the Federation
of Ontario Naturalists concedes that Mellon Lake could be
the proverbial tip of the iceberg, noting that "if this mine
goes ahead, it will set a precedent that could allow for mines
in many of our new parks."
Though he did not stand
firm on this point during the critical Lands for Life negotiations,
Tim Gray, the executive director of the Wildlands League (and
the chief negotiator for the environmental camp during the
Lands for Life process) recently stated that "mines do not
belong in parks," while the Wildlands League declares that
it "will not stand idly by as Ontario parkland is bulldozed
and blasted." With respect to Mellon Lake, Gray has pleaded
to the Minister of Natural Resources, John Snobelen, "to act
quickly to stop this destructive activity before it causes
any more harm to this important area or the species that inhabit
it" (see the Wildlands League website: www.wildlandsleague.org/mellon.htm).
The Wildlands League, the
Federation of Ontario Naturalists, the World Wildlife Fund,
the No Quarry at Mellon Lake coalition (made up of local residents
and cottagers), and the Sierra Legal Defence Fund also recently
filed an application for review with Ontario's environmental
commissioner asking Minister Snobelen to prohibit the mine
from proceeding in Mellon Lake. Though this application was
denied, the struggle continues.
The stakes at Mellon Lake
are high, not only for the five-lined skink, the spotted turtle
and the rest of its residents, but for the way in which environmental
protection is conceived in Ontario into the future.
Tony Weis is a Ph.D. student
in geography at Queen's University in Kingston. Together with
Anita Krajnc, he has written a series of journal articles
and newspaper columns on environmental protection in Ontario
(with particular attention to the Lands for Life process and
outcome), including: "Greenwashing Ontario's Lands for Life:
Why Some Environmental Groups are Complicit in the Tories'
Disastrous Plan" (Canadian Dimension 1999, 33(6), 34-38),
"The New Politics of Bloodsport in Ontario" (Canadian Dimension
2000, 34(5), 42-45), "The authors respond" (Canadian Dimension
34(2), 3), and "Hunting Should not be allowed in Protected
Areas" (Alternatives Journal 2000, 26(3), 7-9).
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 36, Winter/Spring 2001. Copyright Tony Weis.
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