The “War in the Woods” never ended!

Earthroots is in Court fighting government moves to deny the public the right to participate in decisions about protecting the land and its biodiversity from untoward exploitation and bad planning. Without any public consultation, the government is trying to undo environmental protections that concerned citizens have fought for and built over 30 years. It may sound complicated but we see it as an extension of the same issues Earthroots fought for in the “War of the Woods.”

Perhaps we should recap those events. Back in the 1980s what is now Earthroots operated as the Temagami Wilderness Society (TWS). It was a grassroots organization that arose out of a broad public concern that the vast span of forested Crown land across northern and central Ontario was being exploited by forest industries in an unsustainable manner which was severely damaging the biodiversity and degrading non-timber values like “wilderness.” Back country recreational enjoyment of these public lands which had been established for a century was at risk of being lost to future generations. Moreover, despite the public ownership, the people of Ontario were given no role or say in how the forests were being managed. They had no means of protection for their shared resource. The TWS drew attention to this problem by highlighting the giant old growth white and red pines of the Temagami forest. Most people had no idea such ancient trees existed in Ontario and they became the symbols of wilderness that the public could rally around.

Up to that point it had long been argued that allowing privately owned forestry companies to extract timber from Crown land without public oversight was “dispossession of a public resource” and as such should be subject to an environmental assessment (EA) under The Environmental Assessment Act (EEA). This need for an EA was resisted and stalled by both the Ministry of Natural Resources and forestry companies for about 10 years. In 1989 the TWS finally brought the matter into public focus and gained international attention by blockading the Red Squirrel Access Road which was being used to extract the giant pines. The War of the Woods was on!

There were daily demonstrations on the blockade including one intrepid soul buried in the road up to his neck to block equipment. Squads of police were sent in and arrested hundreds of activists including the future Premier of Ontario, Bob Rae. It was a successful protest which led to public hearings for a Timber Management Class Environmental Assessment process. Those hearings were cathartic as well. But eventually a Class EA with terms and conditions making forest management more responsible and more environmentally sound was decided upon. The new management regime was by no means perfect but things were better than they had been= and there were rules for mandatory public participation in forest management planning.

After 10 years the Class EA expired and was replaced by an updated set of procedures called “Declaration Order”. Again it was less than perfect. But, because it was still a process under the EAA the option existed for groups like Earthroots to call for a “bump-up” of a faulty forest management plan to a full individual environmental assessment.

In 2019 Earthroots used that process and called for the flawed Temagami Forest Management Plan for 2019-2029 to be bumped up to a full EA. Our request was turned down but in reviewing the reasons given we found that MNRF had claimed to have done calculations of forest carbon balance resulting from forestry operations when they had not and in fact, had cancelled that work months before.

This information was required by the Declaration Order and necessary for Ontario’s climate change mitigation planning. Earthroots and the public of Ontario had been deceived. So we started the process to take the government to Court and seek a judicial review (JR) of the decision to turn down our bump up. We didn’t get very far because without warning or public consultation the government arbitrarily rescinded the Declaration Order eliminating the basis for our JR so we had to withdraw it.

But they didn’t stop there … and neither have we. In July of this year the government rushed through Bill 197 in 13 days. This Bill changed many things but it profoundly changed the EA process and The Planning Act. There would be no more bump-ups and no more environmental assessment process applying to forest management plans. The public involvement in much of the planning process generally will be substantially curtailed.

But the government made one important mistake. They passed Bill 197 and all its significant changes to public policy without posting the proposed bill for public review and comment on the EBR Registry for 30 days as required by law under the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR). This is an offence to the public and especially groups like Earthroots that rely on the EBR for their legal right to participate in public decision making. And it is a serious mistake to make when yours truly the Chair of Earthroots was for 15 years thee Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and has extensively reported to the Legislature of Ontario on the critical importance of the EAA, Planning Act and especially the EBR to the integrity of the environmental planning process in Ontario. Those reports provide a wealth of official documentation and analysis to support a new judicial review of government malfeasance.

So Earthroots has been joined by the Canadian Environmental Law Association, the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, a concerned indigenous person, Michel Koostachin and an Ontario youth, Cooper Price and will be filing suit against the Ontario government seeking to minimize the impacts of Bill 197 on public participation in environmental planning in Ontario. The War in the Woods has changed in its nature but not in its essential purpose. The public must be consulted and have a say in how the lands and the natural heritage of this Province is administered and protected.

We thank you for your support in all our past efforts to date. And we continue to appeal for any kind of contribution you can make to sustain the continuing War in the Woods.