Wolf Lake is the largest remaining old-growth red pine forest in North America. This globally significant and endangered ecosystem is a recreational paradise known around the world. It has been recognized as a fish sanctuary, a candidate for park status, and as a priority natural area for protection.
It is also the site of active mining leases and claims.
Wolf Lake’s Forest Reserve status protects it from logging but allows mining activity, with the intention for the lands to be added to the provincial park or conservation reserve when the mining claim or lease expires through normal processes.
The past two winters have seen early mining exploration activity ramp up at Wolf Lake. More is planned. The Wolf Lake Coalition has received many queries about what is happening at Wolf Lake. As people get out on the land and water to canoe and camp, here is our update.
Observed impacts – spring of 2021 and 2022
During mining exploration, very large trees have been knocked down or cut down for drilling, line cutting, and access trails.
Drill sites smell of oil. Soil, rocks and pine cones appear to be saturated with an oily substance, sometimes very close to water, raising concerns for both soil and water quality. Two of these drill sites are on popular campsites.
A wetland between Jess Lake and Cobalt Hill was flattened and filled. Silt fencing to prevent runoff was placed too close to Jess Lake and it has failed. (Jess Lake is a small lake in the Wolf Lake old growth forest, just south of Wolf Lake).
New ‘trails’ (~20 feet wide) have been created, and existing trails have been widened to bring in heavy equipment, fragmenting sensitive habitat. Trails have not been closed after use. The easier access by ATV has resulted in further damage and disturbance.
Litter such as water bottles, rags, trail markers, hoses, and fuel canisters had been left behind by workers.
You can watch a video below on the efforts to protect Wolf Lake.
The Ministry of Mines and the Ministry of Resources and Forestry (previously the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry) is responsible for oversight of mining exploration activity.
Despite the sensitivity of the Wolf Lake old growth forest and the concerns raised by Wolf Lake Coalition and others, only two site visits have been made by the Ministry (June and July 2021), both in response to complaints. No site visits have been made in 2022, during or after the most recent exploration activity. At time of writing, no site visits are scheduled in response to the concerns raised in spring 2022.
The Ministry has the authority to impose terms or conditions on permits. In the fall of 2020, in response to public comments on a mining exploration application in Wolf Lake Forest Reserve, the Ministry states in regards to Wolf Lake Forest Reserve: “The land use intent specifies forest reserves are areas where protection of natural heritage and special landscapes is a priority, but some resource use can take place with appropriate conditions.” However, no terms or conditions were added to this permit, or any other recent permit (2018-present) for mining exploration at Wolf Lake.
Instead, the Ministry relies on existing regulations to provide adequate protection. In response to public comments received in 2020, the Ministry writes, “In this regard, the proposed early exploration activities will be completed in a manner that minimizes their effects to the natural environment and public safety by; Following industry best practice guideline, (and) Requiring compliance with; General Requirements in Ontario Regulation 308/12; Provincial Standards for Early Exploration Activities.”
In order to rely on regulations and guidelines, monitoring and enforcement is necessary. As noted above, regular site visits have not been made. Site visits and inspections of early exploration sites are usually the result of a complaint. This means any damage is responded to, rather than prevented.
It is worth noting that, according to personal communications from Ministry staff, existing regulations allow any trees of any size to be felled as needed for trails or site preparation for early exploration activity, including old growth trees at Wolf Lake. Existing regulations and guidelines do not always provide the necessary protection for a sensitive old growth ecosystem. This is one of the reasons why the lack of additional conditions on the permit are of concern. The special nature of Wolf Lake warrants special protection to minimize impacts.
Transparency and public involvement
There is huge public interest in the protection of Wolf Lake old growth forest. In 2020, over 500 public comments were submitted on an application for mining exploration, 98% opposed to mining activity of any kind. This level of public interest and the uniqueness and sensitivity of the old growth red pine ecosystem warrants extra transparency and engagement with the public on activities in Wolf Lake that has been lacking to date.
Prior to mining exploration resuming in 2020, the Wolf Lake Coalition sent several requests to meet with local Ministry staff to discuss our concerns and potential measures to minimize impacts. These requests (made directly and through the office of MPP France Gélinas) were repeatedly declined.
A virtual meeting with a Caucus and Stakeholder Relations Advisor Office to the Minister (MNDMNRF), arranged by Earthroots in October 2021, gave the opportunity to raise questions and concerns. However, no response was received until March 2022, when it was simply stated there was nothing they could do at this time.
In January of 2022, the Ministry agreed to respond to written questions submitted via MPP Gélinas’ office. In early February, a virtual meeting was agreed to, to respond to the questions. Tentative meeting dates were set for May 7 and June 7, but both were cancelled at the last minute. A tentative meeting date is now set for late July, where the Wolf Lake Coalition hopes to finally have an open and constructive discussion.
We can all agree that Wolf Lake is a unique old growth red pine forest and a highly valued recreational area, with very high public interest in its protection. We call all agree that there are active mining leases and claims in Wolf Lake old growth forest that give the right for mining exploration activity to occur at this time. It is in everyone’s interest to keep the damage caused by that activity as small as possible.
The damage observed in the Wolf Lake old growth forest after the past two seasons of work is more than it needs to be for this level of exploration activity, and must not be repeated in this sensitive ecosystem. Proactive monitoring and enforcement (to prevent damage versus respond to it), closing and replanting trails after operations, not creating new trails or widening trails (and committing to no new trails on the undisturbed east side), avoiding removal of trees, maintaining buffers and avoiding run-off to protect water and fish habitat, avoiding or carefully managing water crossings, and maintaining open communication with stakeholders are steps the Wolf Lake Coalition would like to see taken.
The Ministries need to be prepared with a protection plan that sees Wolf Lake Forest Reserve integrated into a protected space, once mining leases and claims are no longer active.
Governments should show leadership to find a solution to protect Wolf Lake in a way that satisfies all parties: Wahnapitae First Nation, Inventus (the current lease/claim holder), the public, and the health of the forest. There are many ways to create protected areas including Indigenous led conservation areas, provincial park systems, and collaborations with the federal governments.
In the meantime, we must protect what is there for when that day comes. If you are out on the land and water, you can do your part by keeping your footprint light, reporting any damage you observe to the local office of the Ministry of Mines, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, and by speaking with your local MP’s and MPP’s about the protection needed for Wolf Lake.
Naomi Grant, Franco Mariotti, and Viki Mather are members of the Wolf Lake Coalition Steering Committee.