A local environmental group said it's confused about why the province is sending mixed messages when it comes to preserving the old growth forest on Wolf Lake.
Activists said the government is going back on repeated commitments to add mining claims in the area to the park as the rights to the claims lapse.
The roughly 300-hectare Wolf Lake Forest Reserve is in the southwestern part of the Temagami area, 50 kilometres northeast of Sudbury. It's home to the largest remaining stand of old-growth red pine trees in the world and is growing increasingly popular with tourists and campers.
Viki Mather, a member of the Wolf Lake Coalition who runs a lodge in the area, said she has been unable to get a proper explanation from the province regarding its intentions for Wolf Lake.
“I don't know,” Mather said. “I keep asking questions. I keep being told that they're following the rulebook. I've asked them exactly what rule this is, and I've had no response.”
In March, Natural Resource Minister Michael Gravelle announced the province was extending a ban on logging in the area, but would allow prospecting to continue on active mining claims.
Mather said Gravelle committed to not automatically renewing mining claims, and would add lapsed claims to the Chiniguchi Waterway Park, a provincial park in the area. But Mather said claims were auto-renewed on April 7 and on April 30. There are about 30 active claims remaining in the area.
It's crucial that these claims are added to the park, Science North Biologist Franco Mariotti said, and added the red pines that populate the forest are able to survive fires because the trees shoot up very quickly and only have branches on the very top.
“They look like a telephone pole at the bottom,” he said. “Some of these trees have no branches for 60 feet ... Red and white pine have very thick bark and branches only at the top. In a sense, they have evolved to survive reasonable (forest) fires.”
In most pine forests with such tall trees, Mariotti said white pines usually replace red pines because white tend to grow better in shady conditions. For some reason, that doesn't happen in Forest Lake.
“We have proof that is area is regenerating itself, which means that it probably has been around for the last 3,000-4,000 years,” he said.
And from a scientific perspective, he said the trees provide the most accurate weather data available for the last 300 years.
“You can measure the level of carbon dioxide in the air over the last 300 years, and actually measure the advance of climate change,” he said.
Core samples from the older trees can reveal which summers were dry, which summers had a lot of rainfall, insect damage and the fire history of the forest.
“One tree alone can tell you so much about the history of the area. You can't replace that kind of value.
“And from an historical perspective, this forest is exactly what Sudbury's downtown used to look like before the railroad came through here. Remember, (Sudbury's) name used to be Sainte-Anne-des-Pins (St. Anne of the Pines).”
In total, the area is part of a 1,600-hectare old growth forest. Wolf Lake lies in the centre, connecting the northern and southern strands of the forest.
Mather said by not letting the claims lapse, the area isn't getting the protection it needs. Activity in protected areas is regulated by the province. The area is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination.
“Frankly, I'm not in the least worried that there's going to be a mine in that area,” Mather said.
“There just isn't anything there. I've been working for more than 20 years on the Wolf Lake issue and there have been claims made all over the area. And they've almost all disappeared.”
What does concern her is the growing number of campers and tourist flocking to the area, and the damage prospecting is doing to the land.
“Last summer when I was passing through on a Sunday evening ... I saw 20 canoes coming out of Wolf Lake. It's a three-kilometre-long lake. It can't handle that kind of pressure. It needs to have the protection that park status would bring.”
A much bigger worry, however, are prospectors, she said. Many people view prospecting as benign, but that's not the case in Forest Lake.
“As long as the claims are valid, the prospectors have the right to clear land and dig pits and it's very damaging to the land.”
Mariotti puts it this way: “We want full protection for that area. No mineral exploration.
“Less than two per cent of the original old-growth stands that used to be in North America are left. And this is by far the largest one left.”
Cindy Blancher-Smith, a director of minerals, development and land with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, said she's not surprised activists are confused, because the process is complicated. However, she said it's not accurate to say the province has been auto-renewing land claims.
“It's hard to get your head around this stuff unless you eat, sleep and breathe it,” Blancher-Smith said.
The province is emerging from its disentanglement process, she said, a period when it put land issues on hold while it consulted with the public and other groups on the best uses for areas such as Wolf Lake.
That process concluded in March when Gravelle announced the MNR was extending the ban on logging in Wolf Lake, but would allow companies to pursue active mining claims.
Blancher-Smith said it wasn't reasonable to expect mining companies to spend money developing the claims while the province was deciding what it would and wouldn't permit on Wolf Lake.
In essence, the clock is now ticking and companies must meet their obligations under the Mining Act if they want to hold on to their claims the next time they come up for renewal.
“The companies now have certain obligations they have to meet if they want to keep those claims in what we call good standing,” Blancher-Smith said. “If they don't, and if they don't have a good reason for keeping them in good standing, those claims will lapse.
“Once that happens, those lands can potentially become part of the park.”
To keep their claims active, companies have to carry out exploration work, for which they receive assessment credits from the MNR. And they have to accumulate a certain amount of assessment credits each year to keep their claims in good standing.
“Essentially, we've started the clock, and they have a year to meet their obligations under the Mining Act and do their assessment work.”
Posted by Arron Pickard