The great guardian of Ontario's forests, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), is under fire for using a loophole to dole out huge tracts of northern crown land to loggers. Back in 1994, the MNR was ordered by the Environmental Assessment Board to impose a 260-hectare limit on clear-cutting; public outcry mandated a cap on large-scale logging. A back door was pencilled in for larger clear-cuts under "exceptional" ecological or biological circumstances, like an infestation of spruce budworms.
But Earthroots and the Sierra Legal Defence Fund charge that the loophole is now being used to permit massive clear-cutting in the Temagami, Wawa and Timmins areas. The clear-cutting, the eco groups say, is becoming the rule rather than the exception. One logging company, Tembec, has been allowed to exceed the 260-hectare limit on 98 per cent of its clear-cuts in the Gordon Cosens Forest.
Earthroots forest campaigner Louise Molloy says more than 71 per cent of the clear-cuts in the Temagami forest management unit and 48 per cent in the Wawa forest management unit are also approved to go over the clear-cut limit.
The MNR, which is being investigated by the Ministry of the Environment after prodding from environmentalists, says it's not uncommon for plans to go over the 260 hectares.
Spokesperson Gord Prisco argues that the limit is in no way meant to be a restriction. "It's not a limit, it's a number over which you have to be able to prove that you are harvesting in a sustainable manner."
Kim Mandzy, project scientist with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, says no matter how Prisco cuts it the MNR is violating the Environmental Assessment Act.
"There is a provision for exceptions, but it's no longer an exception when its gets to be so prevalent," she says.
A case in point is Tembec, which managed to get clearance for a 10,000-hectare clear-cut by saying that its logging pattern would emulate that of a natural forest fire.
But even the ministry's own Forest Management Guide For Natural Disturbance Pattern Emulation raises some concerns over the comparison and the need for additional research.
As it stands, "exceptions" over 500 to 1,000 hectares are common, environmentalists say. New guidelines set for 2003 will allow for 10 to 20 per cent of all cuts to routinely exceed the 260-hectare restriction.
The MOE, which is looking into the eco groups' concerns, confirms that there's enough information to merit an investigation, but is not commenting further.
Prisco says the MNR has been upholding the law, but Molloy disagrees.
"The ministry was set up to protect Ontario's forest, but it seems to us that it is failing in that duty."