The Country Connection The Pinecone Forest Country Roads Maps Country Cabin Books
The Country Connection Magazine Story

Digital Sample Digital Subscription

AddThis Feed Button
AddThis Share Button

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Magazine Fund for the creation of this website.

Under-Mining Environmental Protection in Ontario?

by Tony Weis

A beautiful, newly established protected area in southeastern Ontario—the Mellon Lake Conservation Reserve—could 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 as vulnerable.

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 turtle.

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 percent.

Having feared a much worse outcome, the environmental organizations involved in the negotiations—the 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 remaining—the new parks—has 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-forestry—not 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 well follow.

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:

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.




Reach us at Pinecone or write PO Box 100, Boulter ON K0L 1G0, Canada • Phone: 613-332-3651
Copyright 2010 Pinecone Publishing, all rights reserved. Web construction by Zylstra Design