How we choose to manage Ontario’s publicly owned Crown lands has been the subject of much heated debate throughout the years. There was a time when Ontario’s forests were viewed almost exclusively as a source of products like lumber and pulp. Ecological concerns and recreational values took a backseat to resource extraction, if they were acknowledged at all. Times change.
Growing public concern over protecting the ecological values of Ontario’s forests pushed the government to develop a Timber Management Class Environmental Assessment, which was finalized in 1994. This Class EA had 115 terms and conditions that reflected a new approach to forestry that showed greater concern for protecting ecological values. This paradigm shift also spurred the development of the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, 1994, which incorporated new concepts of sustainable forest management.
Then, in the late 1990s, the Ontario government undertook one of the largest land use planning processes in the province’s history. The outcome was a historic agreement on the use of 39 million hectares of Crown lands and waters in central and northern Ontario. Ontario’s Living Legacy Land Use Strategy [.pdf] set out how the province would balance competing land uses like mining, forestry, tourism, angling, hunting, and conservation. The strategy adopted a clear distinction between lands that should be protected, and lands that are available for commercial activities like logging and mining. It set a target of 12 per cent of the Crown land and water base covered by the agreement to be set aside as protected areas – with the remainder left open for commercial use.
Protected areas are set aside to allow animal and plant species, as well as entire ecosystems and ecological processes, to function unimpaired. These natural areas must be managed very differently from Crown lands that are open to commercial resource extraction. The Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006 requires the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to ensure that ecological integrity [.pdf] is the first priority in the planning and management of all of Ontario’s provincial parks and conservation reserves. The ministry succinctly explains what ecological integrity means: the heart of ecological integrity is the “naturalness” of a given protected area.
Logging is permitted in the red areas in this map of Algonquin Provincial Park. (Click map to enlarge.)
Unfortunately, the line between protected areas and other Crown land is not always so clear. For example, roughly two-thirds of Algonquin Provincial Park is open to commercial timber harvesting. Even though Ontario foresters employ some of the best forestry practices in the world, commercially logging a provincial park is at odds with managing for ecological integrity.
Managing a forest sustainably for timber, while undoubtedly important, is very different than managing a park for its ecological integrity. For example, protected areas are managed to encourage naturally occurring fires; areas managed for logging typically suppress forest fires. Protected areas are managed as roadless areas; areas managed for logging have extensive road networks. Protected areas don’t have aggregate pits; areas in Algonquin managed for logging do. Protected areas are managed to allow trees to die naturally as part of a bio-chemical process; logging is a mechanical process that robs forests of nutrient cycling. And so on.
As the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006 and Ontario’s Living Legacy Land Use Strategy demonstrate, the fundamental reason for distinguishing between general Crown lands and protected areas is that parks are areas intended for conservation with as little interference as necessary. Parks are the only place where we have chosen to allow nature to run its course. Parks are the unimpaired natural benchmarks by which we can measure whether forestry practices elsewhere are actually sustainable.
Forestry operations in Algonquin Provincial Park are certified as sustainable. Yet, the very presence of commercial forestry in Algonquin Provincial Park means that the areas that are open to logging cannot qualify as a “protected area” under international standards. In other words, even if commercial forestry operations meet sustainability standards, you can’t conduct these operations in a park and still call it a park; the two are mutually exclusive with good reason.
Regulated protected areas managed by the province only cover nine per cent of Ontario. These are the last refuges for wilderness; in the rest of the province, wildlife habitat and ecosystems are open to constant pressure from industry and development. Without actually protecting a special place like Algonquin Provincial Park, it’s only lines on a map. Algonquin Provincial Park was established in the 19th century, in the age of lumber barons. It is time to bring it into the 21st century, and adopt modern protected areas science.