The Whitefeather forest and adjacent areas community-based land use strategy

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Introduction

In June 2006, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) adopted a land use strategy for the Whitefeather Forest and Adjacent Areas (WFAA) – a 1.3 million hectare area in the northern boreal forest used and occupied by the Pikangikum First Nation. The “Community-based Land Use Strategy for the Whitefeather Forest and Adjacent Areas” (the WFAA Strategy) is a guidance document that provides strategic direction for future land uses and resource management activities for this remote area in northern Ontario.

The WFAA Strategy is the first of 15 land use strategies intended to be developed using the policy and planning framework of the Northern Boreal Initiative (NBI) Community-Based Land Use Planning Process. The NBI was established by MNR in 2000 to enable the commercial development of the forests and other resources in the area to the north of the “Area of the Undertaking” (AOU), and to facilitate economic renewal, employment opportunities and resource stewardship for First Nation communities. (For a review of the NBI, see the review in our 2002/03 Annual Report.) Under the NBI planning process, each First Nation community within the NBI area leads the process for planning and developing a land use strategy for its respective region, with support and input from MNR and other provincial agencies.

The WFAA Strategy, developed by Pikangikum First Nation with the assistance of MNR, provides direction for future land use and resource development activities within the WFAA. The WFAA Strategy also identifies zoning areas within the WFAA and applies one of three main land use designations to these areas, as follows:

  • Dedicated Protected Areas: areas (including waterways) that are set aside to protect special natural and cultural heritage features, and which prohibit commercial forestry, mineral sector activities, commercial electricity generation, aggregate extraction and peat extraction.
  • General Use Areas: areas in which all land use activities are supported.
  • Enhanced Management Areas: areas in which a wide range of uses (including commercial forestry and mining activities) may occur, but which include more detailed or area-specific land use direction to protect special interests or features, such as cultural and historic values, fish and wildlife habitat, and remoteness objectives. Enhanced Management Areas typically provide a gradient of uses between the more sensitive Designated Protected Areas and the General Use Areas.

The WFAA Strategy designates approximately 36 per cent of the total WFAA as Dedicated Protected Areas, 29 per cent as General Use Areas, and the remaining 35 per cent as Enhanced Management Areas. Accordingly, 64 per cent of the WFAA is open to at least some development.

Implications

Upon approval of the WFAA Strategy by both MNR and the First Nations, MNR immediately adopted the land use direction and area designations set out in the WFAA Strategy through a major amendment to the Crown Land Use Policy Atlas. The WFAA Strategy, as incorporated into provincial land use policy, creates zoning areas for Dedicated Protected Areas, General Use Areas and Enhanced Management Areas.

Designation of Protected Areas

In our 2002/2003 Annual Report, the ECO recommended that MNR “develop objectives and targets in order to establish a protected areas network for the NBI area as a whole.” Protected areas serve a critical role in protecting species at risk, preserving ecologically significant features and maintaining biodiversity. The NBI area, which contains relatively unimpaired and intact ecosystems, provides a unique planning opportunity for creating a system of protected areas based on ecological principles.

Yet, unlike the extensive planning that was undertaken for the Ontario Living Legacy land use strategy for the AOU, there has not been any broad-scale land use planning or “gap analysis” for the NBI area. Without landscape-level guidance, such as objectives for the conservation of species at risk and biodiversity, the NBI’s piecemeal planning approach misses the opportunity to create a regional system of protected areas for the entire NBI area that would best protect species at risk and conserve biodiversity.

Regulation of Dedicated Protected Areas

The Dedicated Protected Areas designation is an interim designation only. The WFAA Strategy states that these areas are to be regulated under provincial legislation, but it does not provide any commitments regarding how or when these areas will be regulated.

If MNR does not regulate the Dedicated Protected Areas as either provincial parks or conservation reserves, there is no certainty that these areas will receive the level of protection provided by the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006. For example, without a regulated protected area designation, there is a risk that commercial forestry (and other activities) will not be legally prohibited in the Dedicated Protected Areas, even though that is the intent expressed in the WFAA Strategy.

Woodland Caribou

The WFAA Strategy sets out a number of measures designed to protect forest-dwelling woodland caribou, such as designating key habitat as protected areas and engaging in strategic access planning to maintain remoteness and habitat connectivity. While the proposed measures are laudable, they may not be sufficient. Woodland caribou have a very low tolerance for disturbances and require large protected areas to remain viable (see Conserving woodland caribou: the benchmark for Northern sustainability.)

Forestry and other resource development

The WFAA Strategy does not, in itself, confer any new authority with respect to development in the WFAA. Before commercial forestry may proceed in the WFAA, MNR must seek either approval or exemption under the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA). However, the WFAA Strategy does provide strong direction for the development of commercial forestry in the WFAA.

The WFAA Strategy suggests that a new sustainable approach to forestry will be applied in the WFAA. Yet, the WFAA Strategy does not provide any details regarding a new direction for forestry policy. To the contrary, in November 2006, MNR began to seek permission to proceed with forestry activities in the WFAA by means of a declaration order issued by MOE under the EAA, which MNR stated is to be modeled after the Declaration Order (MNR-71) for the AOU. If the status quo approach to forestry policy is applied in the WFAA, there will likely be negative ecological impacts. Evidence suggests that the existing forestry guidelines and policies being applied in the AOU have not proven to be effective in mitigating the impacts on some ecological values, such as caribou.

Moreover, commercial forestry in the northern boreal – if it is to be permitted at all – requires different approaches than those employed in the south; this is due to the physical environment of the north, its harsh climate, shorter growing season, and lesser diversity of forest tree species. Unfortunately, despite past recommendations by both the federal Senate Subcommittee on the Boreal Forest and the ECO to assess forestry management approaches specific to the northern boreal, as of May 2007, no such assessment has yet been made public.

ECO Comment

Pikangikum’s WFAA Strategy brings the provincial government one step closer to opening up Ontario’s far north to commercial forestry and new levels of resource development. The introduction of new development in the NBI area – including forestry, mining, tourism, hydroelectric generation and new road construction – will likely have significant impacts on the fragile northern boreal forest. Given the potential implications of allowing these activities in the northern boreal forest, the ECO is extremely disappointed that MNR has not developed a broad, integrated land use planning system for the northern boreal as a region, prior to proceeding with the first of the NBI’s community-based land use planning processes.

The ECO is also concerned that the commercial forestry guidelines for the AOU have been inappropriately applied to the WFAA, and may continue to be applied in subsequent steps. For example, the WFAA Strategy applied a one-kilometer forest harvesting buffer around most caribou calving lakes, which reflects current forestry policy in the AOU. Yet, recent studies have concluded that a surrounding buffer zone of intact forest of at least 13-kilometers in width is needed to maintain caribou on Ontario’s northern boreal landscape. If MNR simply applies the forestry guidelines and policies developed for the AOU to the WFAA, significant environmental consequences and irreparable harm to species at risk may result.

In addition, the ECO is concerned about the failure of the WFAA Strategy to include specific steps or timelines for the regulation of the Dedicated Protected Areas. Without deadlines, these areas could retain this interim, unregulated designation for years. The ECO urges MNR to build on the substantial amount of consultation, planning and broad agreement accomplished during this process, and take immediate steps to regulate the Dedicated Protected Areas under the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006, to ensure that they receive the protection provided by this Act.

The WFAA Strategy espouses many commendable objectives. However, it will be a significant challenge to meet the competing objectives of economic renewal and increased employment on the one hand, and sustainability, biological conservation, stewardship of the land and remoteness objectives, on the other. With the inevitable tension between the goals for conservation and development, there is a strong need for clear and explicit rules governing planning in the north.





This is an article from the 2006/07 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2007. "The Whitefeather Forest and Adjacent Areas community-based land use strategy." Reconciling our Priorities, ECO Annual Report, 2006-07. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 128-131.

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