Needed: Big Picture Planning for the Northern Boreal
In September 2005, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund (SLDF) filed an EBR application for review on behalf of the Wildlands League, requesting that several ministries consider the need to create a comprehensive land use planning system for northern Ontario. The applicants asserted that a wide array of evidence suggests that landscape-level planning is needed in advance of resource development decisions in Ontario’s northern boreal region. The application for review was sent to the Ministries of the Environment, Natural Resources, Northern Development and Mines, and Energy.
Ontario’s boreal forests begin just north of the Great Lakes. The boreal forests to the north of the 51st parallel have global significance, identified by the World Resources Institute as remaining frontier forests, relatively unimpaired by development. The United Nations Environment Programme recognizes this region of Ontario as one of the world’s remaining significant “closed canopy” forests. The northern boreal comprises approximately one-third of Ontario’s land-base, at almost 400,000 km2 – an area equivalent to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island combined. SLDF and the Wildlands League contend that the current lack of policy with respect to comprehensive land use planning puts this area at risk of irreversible environmental harm.
SLDF and the Wildlands League believe that MNR’s ongoing Northern Boreal Initiative (NBI) does not address all of the planning issues at hand, since it covers only a small portion of the area in question and is primarily focused on commercial forestry activities. Further, the applicants contend that the NBI does not address landscape-level planning and that MNR does not have jurisdiction over all of the possible development projects – which include, but are not limited to, roads, coalbed methane exploration, mineral staking and prospecting, hydro generation projects, and transmission corridors for electricity. As an illustration of some of their concerns, the applicants took issue with what they called the “piecemeal” approval process for the Victor Diamond Mine near Attawapiskat.
The applicants believe that a comprehensive land use strategy must include proper engagement of First Nations communities in the northern boreal and the public at large; environmental assessments of each project; proper land use planning, with consideration of the ecosystems in question; and the designation of protected areas before resource allocations are made. The applicants also assert that the strategy must take an inter-ministerial approach.
SLDF and the Wildlands League stress that such a strategy should address the cumulative impacts of all proposed developments in the northern boreal, including the impacts of developments such as forestry activities already under way further south. SLDF and the Wildlands League also argue that landscape-level plans should be complete before any areas are licensed to industry or allocated for development. They believe that land use plans should be required to have large core protected areas, wildlife movement corridors, buffer zones, traditional use areas, protected sacred areas, and areas designated for other uses.
Ministry of the Environment
As of June 2006, MOE had not provided a decision to the applicants on their request for a review; the ministry was approximately seven months beyond the deadlines prescribed by the EBR.
Ministry of Natural Resources
MNR denied the application in November 2005, stating that the public interest did not warrant a review for a new comprehensive land use policy in advance of decisions being made about resource allocation. The ministry also asserted that the existing environmental assessment approvals and permitting processes are sufficient to address, mitigate, and minimize potential harm to the environment.
The ministry stated that it was responsible for a relatively limited number of approvals with regard to the Victor Diamond Mine. The ministry asserted that these decisions were based on “approved land use planning documents for the region and numerous scientific studies conducted by the MNR and the disposition applicant DeBeers Canada to ensure environmental effects were considered during project evaluation.”
MNR stated the Northern Boreal Initiative directs community-based land use planning, and asserted that the NBI allows First Nations to take a leading role in land use planning, “with an important objective of fostering sustainable economic opportunities in forestry and conservation.” MNR claims that this local-level process also “utilizes a landscape-scale approach to ensure that achievements are measured appropriately and that impacts beyond the planning area are adequately considered.”
Despite denying the application, MNR stated that it was working on a policy that addresses some of the concerns raised by the SLDF and the Wildlands League. The ministry informed the applicants that “in early 2005 MNR began exploring potential approaches for land use planning in Ontario’s far north and has initiated discussions with the first nation treaty organizations and tribal councils, as well as several non- governmental organizations. This exercise is continuing and MNR would welcome discussions regarding the land use planning elements proposed in the review application.”
Ministry of Northern Development and Mines
MNDM denied the application in November 2005, stating that the public interest did not warrant a review. The ministry also asserted that it was not the lead ministry for the development of such a strategy, but that it would actively participate with MNR in developing and implementing its approaches to land use planning.
With respect to the Victor Diamond Mine, MNDM stated that it participated in the review of a Comprehensive Study Environmental Assessment under the Canadian Environment Assessment Act. The ministry also stated that three environmental assessment processes were carried out for activities related to the mine site, as well the signing of an Impacts and Benefits Agreement between the Attawapiskat First Nation and DeBeers.
The ministry stated that “mining is a temporary land use, and that mining regulations ensure that a mine site is rehabilitated to natural, recreational or commercial land uses.” MNDM asserted that Ontario’s Mining Act, along with other permitting processes, ensures that proponents carrying out mineral exploration and development endeavour to mitigate the short-term effects of mining on the environment; eliminates the long- term effects of mining on the environment; ensures continuing availability of mineral resources for the long-term benefit of the people of Ontario; and protects natural heritage and biological features of provincial significance.
Ministry of Energy
ENG denied the application in November 2005, stating that the public interest did not warrant a review. The ministry did not specifically address the concerns raised by the applicants, but, rather, described the numerous regulatory processes that must be followed for new energy projects. ENG also stated that “Ontario must confront a massive shortfall between supply and demand for electricity within the next 15 years” and the solution to this shortfall “will require the consideration of major energy projects.” The ministry also stated that “possible northern Ontario energy projects include small hydro projects, wind turbines, and a major new electricity transmission line from northern Manitoba to southern Ontario.”
In our 2002/2003 annual report, the ECO provided extensive commentary on the need for comprehensive planning in northern Ontario. The ECO wrote that “landscape level planning should inform community-by-community decision-making” and that “it is imperative that MNR assess the ecological implications of industrial logging in the northern boreal forest.” In that report, the ECO also made two formal recommendations related to resource development in northern Ontario:
- The ECO recommends that the Ministry of Natural Resources conduct gap analyses and develop objectives and targets in order to establish a protected areas network for the Northern Boreal Initiative area as a whole.
- The Ministry of Natural Resources should carry out a thorough assessment of forest management approaches that are ecologically suited to the northern boreal forest and make the research results available to the public.
The ECO notes that as of summer 2006, the environmental impacts of permitting forestry in the northern boreal forest have not yet been assessed formally. Allowing logging in the northern boreal forest will require either approval or exemption under the Environmental Assessment Act.
The ECO concurs with the applicants that significant changes should be made to the way in which the Ontario government regulates and plans for the northern boreal. The existing approval processes typically operate in isolation from one another, and they do not take a comprehensive “big picture” approach. This “silo mentality” does not effectively serve Ontarians nor provide adequate assurances of environmental protection in the path of resource development. The northern boreal has a unique and varied ecology that merits the same standard of planning that applies to the rest of the province, if not higher.
Unfortunately, the ECO is unable to comment substantively on this application, since the Ministry of the Environment has failed to provide a response within the timelines prescribed by the Environmental Bill of Rights. While the ECO acknowledges that the issues raised by the applicants are complex, excessive delays frustrate the public interest and undermine the EBR. The ECO is also disappointed that the Ministry of Natural Resources denied this application for review, especially in light of the fact that the ministry is developing new approaches to land use planning in Ontario’s far north.
The ECO commits to reporting fully on this application in a forthcoming annual report, following the legally required response by MOE.
The ECO recommends that MNR, MOE, MNDM, and ENG consult the public on an integrated land use planning system for the northern boreal forest, including detailed environmental protection requirements that reflect the area’s unique ecology.
|This is an article from the 2005/06 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.|
Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2006. "Needed: Big Picture Planning for the Northern Boreal." Neglecting our Obligations, ECO Annual Report, 2005-06. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 134-138.[category:Far North Act]]