Ontario at a logging crossroads

Lands for Life


Ontario is fast approaching the limit of sustainable logging. This is what’s at the nub of clashes over the provincial government’s efforts to change the rules for logging in central Ontario.

It means « increased competition for available stands of forest,’’ says Eva Ligeti, the province’s environmental commissioner, in her recent annual report.

Logging companies want no more parks and protected areas and, for 60 per cent of the lands they log, they want licences in perpetuity — in other words, forever — with renewable licences for the remainder of their lands.

In the meantime, hunters want rights to hunt in a lot more parks. Environmentalists want to roughly triple the amount of protected areas. Northern communities that depend on logging for jobs don’t want restrictions on tree cutting. Tourism operators don’t want logging anywhere near them. And people from southern Ontario feel that public lands belong to them too, and they want a say in what happens.

The forestry industry accounts for 89,000 direct jobs and 74,000 indirect jobs, and is worth $9 to $14 billion in annual sales. There are 29 communities in northern Ontario with more than a quarter of their work force employed in forestry jobs. Tourism employs about 10,000 people, directly and indirectly, and brings in $200,000 million a year.

At stake is half of Ontario. Environmentalists say that to maintain wildlife, and to ensure that ecosystems continue to flourish, it will be necessary to protect 15 to 20 per cent of the land from logging, mining, and any other industrial activity. At the moment, only about 6 per cent of the area is protected.

The government’s plan is to download the costs of maintaining the forests to the logging companies. That, say the companies, means big investments for them. And to make it worthwhile, they need assurances that they will control the land from the time trees are planted until they can be cut.

And since growing, and cutting are alternated through vast areas, they need to control vast areas.

As Ligeti’s annual report points out, all this is happening because: « Between 1995 and 1998, as part of government-wide budget cuts, the forest management budget and staff at the Ministry of Natural Resources were cut by about 50 per cent.’’

So the question for everyone in Ontario is: Since we have stripped government of the ability to manage the forests, how much do we have to give industry to do it for us?

To answer that question, the government divided central Ontario into three regions — Boreal West (Marathon west to the Manitoba border), Boreal East (from Marathon east to the Quebec border), and Great Lakes/St. Lawrence (a more or less horizontal strip with Haileybury toward the northern border and just north of Kingston toward the southern ). And it set up a round table in each region.

The trouble is, the government gave the round tables only eight months to arrive at answers. That wasn’t enough, so it allotted three additional months — up until the end of this month.

That still isn’t enough. As Ligeti’s report says: This initiative «  will change the landscape of Ontario…. (The round tables) need to consider many factors: not only complicated trends in wood supply and demand, but also the many policies that affect how forests grow and how they are used.

« Forest policy (of the Ministry of Natural Resources) has been in turmoil in recent years due to … conflicting pressures … and budget cuts….

« Significant concerns have been raised about the tight timetable, about fairness in public consultation, and about the quality of information available to the public and the round tables.’’

The round tables need more time, Ligeti says. « I remind the ministry that making such crucial decisions requires adequate time and information.’’

The government should listen. The commissioner is a public watchdog. She’s saying there’s not enough information, and the round tables haven’t had enough time, for sound decisions to be made.

These are decisions that will bind generations to come. We’d better get it right.

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