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“A Road Runs Through It”

ON Nature, Winter 2007-2008
My first feature assignment for ON Nature magazine explored what Ontario’s new Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act means for the ecological integrity of the province’s protected places.


A ROAD RUNS THROUGH IT

But it shouldn’t. Our parks are supposed to be wilderness sanctuaries, yet the trees are still logged, the waterways polluted and the trucks keep rolling through. Ontario Nature lobbied hard for tougher protection So, will the new Provincial Parks Act really put ecological integrity first?

By Conor Mihell

AT A CAMPSITE beneath an 80-metre-high cliff in the south end of Lake Superior Provincial Park, sunset shadows play across the Sand River. This will be my fourth and last night camped alongside the river; another 10 kilometres of gravel swifts, whitewater and falls remains before the river joins Lake Superior. Ojibwa people canoed what they called the Pinguisibi for millennia, and named it for the expansive dunes at the river mouth.  To get here I’ve paddled the narrow bends of the river’s upper reaches, listening to warblers and glimpsing a moose crashing through the shoreline alders. I’ve caught and released more of the Sand’s legendary brook trout than I’ve fried up for breakfasts. And I’ve taken to portaging when whitewater pinballs turned into thundering falls.

It is my first time canoeing the 56-kilometre long river that runs between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa since a logging road along the river’s east bank dating back to the 1960s was rebuilt in 2003 to usher loggers and supplies through Lake Superior Provincial Park and into 20,000 hectares of privately owned land beyond the eastern boundary. But on this evening at High Cliff, all seems well and songbirds chorus clear above the swift-flowing river. The logging road might as well be hundreds of kilometres away. In reality, it is barely 800 metres from my campsite.

That a logging road can cut across Lake Superior Provincial Park tells you something about the degree of protection afforded our parks – or the lack thereof.  Seventy-eight per cent of Algonquin Provincial Park—Ontario’s first “protected” area—is still open to logging, and development infringes upon dozens of other, supposedly safe, places.  While the designations suggest iron-clad safeguards from any manner of habitat destruction, Ontario’s 631 parks, conservation reserves and wilderness areas (together constituting only nine percent of Ontario’s land mass) are not nearly as well protected as one might think.  The archaic 1954 parks’ act—in effect until this year—was a pushover whenever mining, forestry and hydroelectric interests came looking for new areas to exploit.  “Ontario’s original parks’ act was more about accommodating development [within park boundaries] than preserving supposedly protected spaces,” says Evan Ferrari, director of CPAWS-Wildlands League.

The long-awaited Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, which came into force in September of this year, states the primacy of the notion of “ecological integrity.” And while Ferrari, who played a significant role in the development of the new legislation, is optimistic about the act’s potential, a few conspicuous loopholes remain.

Most notable is the fact that the new act does not recognize the “greater park ecosystem”—the so-called “good neighbour clause.” Protected areas like Lake Superior Provincial Park—and most others—have become islands of wilderness amid a sea of development.  For example, the town of Saugeen Shores recently entered negotiations to acquire a 7.5-hectare parcel of land adjoining MacGregor Point Provincial Park, which contains an assemblage of forest, wetland and sand dune habitat on Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario.  The town intends to build a housing development, potentially threatening the park’s more than 100 species of migratory birds.

Nor does the new act make Ontario’s waterway parks any less vulnerable to development. Mining giant Falconbridge pumps contaminated mining wastes into the “protected” Groundhog River, a northern Ontario waterway park. Falconbridge’s claim to a site 12 kilometres from the river pre-dated the Groundhog’s 1999 designation as a Waterway Park and included a corridor of mining claims leading to the river’s edge. At the point of discharge, a spawning area for lake sturgeon, water quality does not meet provincial standards. But Ministry of the Environment monitoring is done further downstream where the contaminants are diluted and standards met.

Undercutting any gains made through the new parks act is the fact that the province’s parks are enormously underfunded. The government of Ontario contributes only $15 million towards provincial parks’ annual $68.7 million operating costs—the lowest as a percentage in Canada. (The province spends $75 million each year to maintain 62,000 kilometres of logging roads.) User fees cover the balance of the parks bill and then some, generating $46 million annually in provincial revenue. Furthermore, parks generate another $390 million in economic activity in surrounding communities. As for the 257 “paper parks” – parks that lack an official management plan and so do not collect visitor fees – ecological provisions such as prescribed road closures, habitat rehabilitation and user regulations are non-existent.

ON A HOT JULY DAY I drive 80 kilometres along the Trans Canada Highway south of Wawa to take a closer look at Sand River Road. After ducking under the gate that keeps unauthorized vehicles out, I bike into Lake Superior Provincial Park’s backcountry. I cycle through a transitional forest of birch, maple and balsam fir, stopping to admire 30-metre-tall old growth white pines that dwarf the second-growth canopy. Streams chatter through shiny new culverts; rusty old ones have been left like decomposing skeletons at the road’s margins. A white-throated sparrow calls out, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to find a mate. At several points I swerve to miss fur-laden wolf scat.

The road is of the typical logging variety: Well-graded except for the odd bit of washboard, just wide enough for two vehicles to pass abreast and slightly eroded on the hills by the one-ton, V8 pickups that use it a few times a week year-round to deliver supplies to loggers outside the park. After 10 minutes of riding I’m within a stone’s throw of the river just downstream from my favourite campsite at High Cliff. Pinguisibi is visible through the trees.

“Logging roads fragment the forest, reducing available habitat for wide-ranging mammals like woodland caribou that need massive areas of continuous, undisturbed forest to survive,” says Jennifer Baker, Ontario Nature’s conservation campaign coordinator. “The negative impacts are far-reaching and often permanent.” By chopping through habitat, roads make for smaller communities of flora and fauna and reduce an ecosystem’s biological diversity.

I reach another gate just past kilometre marker 14 about 45 minutes later. This gate designates the boundary between the park and 20,000-odd hectares of privately owned land. But the reminder is unnecessary. The transition from second-growth greenery to clearcut barrens is striking. The dusty road curves through piles of unwanted slash and no birds sing beneath the hot sun.

It is something of a shock to discover that nearly every Ontario park is similarly surrounded by development pressures pushing against sensitive boundaries. Bob Payne, a professor at Lakehead University’s School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism, says that the province has supported the argument put forward by resource companies that there is no such thing as a “good neighbour” clause. Payne says that as far as logging, mining and hydroelectric interests are concerned, buffer zones should be within park boundaries and resource extraction should be allowed to take place anywhere else.

“This type of infraction happens all across the province,” says Payne, citing the example of Quetico Provincial Park, where forest company Bowater cuts right up to the park line. “A sensible buffer would be outside of the park. This is something that should be put into policy.”

ANYONE WHO HAS EVER TRAVELLED the northern Ontario leg of the Trans-Canada Highway remembers Lake Superior Provincial Park. Early on in the 700-kilometre-long, are-we-there-yet stretch of blacktop between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, 83 kilometres of Highway 17 bisects the park just south of Wawa. It feels like you’re driving along the edge of a frontier. If the jaw-dropping views of Lake Superior Agawa and Old Woman Bay don’t keep you alert, the transmission-grinding hills will.

But topographical maps—or better yet, Google Earth satellite imagery—reveal that Lake Superior Provincial Park has essentially become a 1,600-square-kilometre island. Its western boundary is 120 kilometres of Lake Superior coastline, and the eastern boundary an equally long swath of clearcuts accessed by the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) and a spider web of logging roads.

While modern forest management practices attempt to mimic natural disturbances, Shelley Hunt, a researcher in University of Guelph’s Department of Environmental Biology, says that clearcuts create ecological discontinuities that are far from natural. The resulting checkerboard forest lies just outside Lake Superior Provincial Park and across northern Ontario.

“Individual clearcuts may not be very big,” says Hunt, “but neither are the residual untouched areas in between.”

Lake Superior Provincial Park was originally established in 1944 “to protect a significant area of Lake Superior’s coastline.” Before it became a park, hardscrabble hand loggers spent winters and springs felling and floating giant white pines down the Agawa River to Lake Superior. Each year for more than a quarter of a century, rafts of old growth pine the size of city subdivisions were towed by tugboat to mills in Sault Ste. Marie.

The network of roads and skidder trails crisscrossing the area continued to grow even after park designation. An investigation by the Algonquin Wildlands League in the early 1970s revealed that 95 percent of the park was open to logging. Bruce Litteljohn, a writer and photographer, and Douglas Pimlott, a professor of forestry and zoology at the University of Toronto—both founding directors of the Wildlands League—concluded that “the people of Ontario [were] funding the destruction of their own wilderness.”

The province finally abolished logging within Lake Superior Park boundaries in 1992. But a wording loophole in the park’s current management plan allowed the road to be redeveloped at Sand River, according to park superintendent Bob Elliott. He says the management plan specified “access to allocations east of the park would be allowed on existing roads.”

Elliott says park managers were specifically referring to the Crown allocations set aside by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) in townships more than 10 kilometres east of the park line. ACR-owned land formed a 10-kilometre-wide buffer along the park’s eastern boundary; Elliott didn’t foresee the wording to cause any problems because the railway had no intentions of logging.

But when the cash-strapped ACR started offloading its property to chainsaw-toting buyers, Sand River Road became a convenient—and presumably legitimate—means of accessing uncut tracts of land. Even more alluring to loggers was the fact that because the land was privately owned, it wouldn’t be subject to provincial forestry regulations such as stumpage fees and habitat and reforestation guidelines.

British Columbia-based logger Mike Jenks purchased two 10,000-hectare plots of land east of Lake Superior Provincial Park from the ACR in 2002 and asked Bob Elliott for permission to rebuild the Sand River Road for access.  Both Elliott and MNR rejected his proposal. “At that point the road was little more than a trail,” says Elliott. “You could drive an ATV down it but that was about it. All of the road crossings were washed out.”

Despite a court injunction, Jenks had the road upgraded during the three years the case was in limbo. The dispute between Jenks, the park and MNR ended in 2005 when the Supreme Court of Canada sided with Lake Superior Provincial Park ruling that Jenks was never to use the Sand River Road again.

But the damage was already done. The road had been widened and graded, water crossings were replaced and any sign of habitat regeneration cleared. The improved roadway had allowed year-round access to Jenks’ property in Greenwood and Bullock townships, where scarcely a tree now stands.

“IT’S INFINITELY BETTER THAN WHAT WE HAD BEFORE,” says Ferrari about Ontario’s new Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act.  “But it’s still a working document.”

Ontario Nature, CPAWS-Wildlands League, Sierra Legal Defense and other environmental organizations, had lobbied hard for the overhaul of the old Ontario Parks Act. When the Liberals balked at maintaining a 2002 election promise to upgrade parks’ legislation, CPAWS-Wildlands League and Sierra Legal Defense wrote up their own act.

The new legislation is the polar opposite of the 1954 act’s directive of accommodating development. In theory, this is exactly what the environmental lobby called for: An end to logging, hydroelectric development and mining in provincial parks, conservation reserves and wilderness areas.

But the new act is not retroactive: any development projects that were approved before the new act came into force can be completed. Such is the case in northern Ontario’s White River Waterway Park, where a series of hydroelectric dams to be constructed over the next five years will suck the life from a wild river.

“All [these projects] will be allowed to be finished,” observes Payne. “Unless there’s a groundswell of opposition locally, these things aren’t going to go away.”

Under the new parks act, logging is prohibited in every provincial park except for Algonquin, which is crisscrossed by 8,000 kilometres of forest access roads. Ferrari expresses concern about the new act’s questionable anti-mining wording. The act says that through an Order of Council, boundary changes could be made to allow mining in the lesser of either one per cent or 50 hectares of a protected area.

“Fifty hectares is enough to put a mine in, and there’s nothing preventing [the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines] from making multiple exceptions [in the same park],” says Ferrari. “This makes me nervous to say the least. If they were to find diamonds or something really valuable you can be sure they would pull out all the stops to make it happen.”

The success of the new legislation boils down to how much money the Ontario government is willing to ante up to support the concept of ecological integrity. Payne says that as long as the Ontario Parks budget remains “laughably inadequate,” he doesn’t expect much to change. “It’s a question of staff and money and having the science available to know what’s out there,” says Payne. “All of that’s going to cost money. If we’re going to believe the act will do what it says, we’ll have to believe that the money is coming. Otherwise it’s just going to be the usual type of smoke and mirrors.”

THE SILVER LINING IN THE REDEVELOPMENT OF THE SAND RIVER ROAD is that it provides an opportunity to test the resolve of the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act’s quest for ecological integrity. Decommissioning and rehabilitation of the road is slated within the next three years. With regard to the latter, Ferrari says he will gauge the success of the new parks act by comparing it to the federal equivalent, which takes a no-holds-barred approach. Ferrari lauds the example of Bruce Peninsula National Park, where 110 kilometres of existing roadway is scheduled to return to the land and 47 park buildings will be removed in the next five years.

To celebrate the hard-won victory at Pinguisibi, I suggest to Ferrari that he take a canoe trip on the Sand River, to run its rapids and sweat out its lumpy portages, and to be sure to spend a night at High Cliff, where the sunset casts long shadows and the river chuckles over cobble. Ferrari agrees. In the meantime, the river will continue to cascade over granite bedrock and carve a serpentine course through brown sugar dunes and into Lake Superior.

Conor Mihell is a freelance environmental and adventure travel writer who lives on the north shore of Lake Superior.