Earthroots pushes back as the Province further erodes endangered species protection.

January 22, 2024
Barbara Steinhoff

EarlyExploration Mining Trails EPA Exemption - ERO Proposal 019-8016

The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks has posted a notice on the ERO requesting input on changes to the regulation governing mining exploration as it relates to impacts on species at risk. Earthroots has over 30 years of experience on the ecological impacts of land use decisions in the Crown forests of central and northern Ontario where mining exploration of this nature is pursued. In that context we have prepared the following comments.

The proposal reads as follows:

ERO Proposal 019-8016

“We are proposing an amendment to the current early exploration mining conditional exemption (s. 23.10 of O. Reg. 242/08) toallow for the construction (1), re-opening (2), and use (3) of trails to support early exploration mining activities.”

The essential concern implicit in this proposed exemption is that, under they guise of an exempted ‘trail’, a ‘road’ would be constructed or de facto be developed through use with time and in the absence of any onsite inspection or scrutiny. Roads have considerably more potential disruption of local ecosystem integrity and, thus, greater potential impact on endangered species. Therefore, if the exemption is to maintain protections in the ESP Act while streaming the implementation of conditions, those conditions must be rigorous enough to assure that ‘trails’ are built as true ‘trails’ and maintained as such.

The requested input from the public is:

 “To establish a set of eligibility criteria and to appropriately scope activities related to the construction, re-opening, and use of early exploration mining trails in order to minimize and mitigate impacts to species at risk and their habitats, the ministry is seeking feedback on the following, but not limited to:

•         methods for trail construction

•         the duration of trail use(e.g., only during early exploration)

•         timing of trail use(e.g., winter vs. all-season)

•         trail size (e.g., width and length)

•         eligible vehicles for trails (e.g., ATVs, snowmobiles)

•         extent of vegetation clearing

•         degree of soil compaction

•         landscapes not suitable for trails or that should be avoided

•         use of timing windows for more sensitive species (e.g., to avoid trail construction during species critical life stages such as reproduction and rearing)

•        other criteria the ministry should consider”

In order to give context to public the comment requested, the distinction between a ‘trail’ and a ‘road’ constructed in the boreal forest or boreal transitionmust be clearly understood (there are no legal definitions). The following is the view of Earthroots of this distinction.

The nature of trails:

•  the surface established the trial is composed of the natural biological and geological materials originally present

•  there is no disruption of natural drainage patterns

•  access is allowed without significantly disrupting theecological conditions adjacent

•  they are subject to recolonization, regrowth andvegetation restoration by adjacent ecosystem processes

•  if sufficiently wide they can serve as conduits or corridors and facilitate dispersal of edge species that can disrupt interior forest ecological characteristics

•  where a forest is tall enough, trails are not visible above the canopy

The nature of roads:

•  the surface constructed is hardened to support the weight of equipment (usually requiring imported aggregate)

•  drainage fluctuations my disrupt road surface conditions so drainage is managed by artificial means such as large culverts and bridges

•  the road width is maintained to allow the largest vehicle utilizing it to pass another head on

•  vegetation on the shoulder areas is cut to a minimum height and maintained that way opening a wide corridor visible from above and amenable to exploitation by edge species

•  snow removal may be conducted in winter

With this context, the following are the Earthroots comments on each of the topic areas request:

Method of construction:

Trails should be created largely with manual labour with limited use of heavy equipment. There should be surface material added and no borrow pits for the extraction of aggregates allowed. Some of the light footprint forestry equipment could be specified but heavy equipment such as skidders and dozers definitely excluded due to their rutting and disruption of the native soils and vegetation. Drainage management impacts can be maintained by limiting trail construction to a use of maximum 30 cm (24 in.) culverts. Bridges should not be necessary on trails. Logs from the trial clearing can be used for corduroy and stabilizing culverts.

Duration of use:

Trails are in the boreal are by their nature ephemeral on the landscape. The forest ecosystem function acts to begins to close up such disturbances immediately and continuously.  Trail existence through time must be sustained by use. In mining exploration trail use should be limited by the duration of the exploration activity which is typically short.Such exemptions should be limited to 2 years. For longer terms a more comprehensive mitigation plan should be required.

Timing of use (seasonal):

Winter use of trails is most desirable to limit a number of potential adverse effects.Permitting all-season use has the greatest potential for the abuse of conditions and de facto conversion to a road. Summer use must be accompanied with inspection by ‘arm’s length’ professionals.

Trail size:

Trail length is difficult to comment on because of the limitations imposed by the geographical situation. However, shorter is better and use of ice roads to shorten the trail through the forest should be considered.

 Trail width has disruptive ecological potential but it is controversial because it impacts the utility of the access. Designs should limit trail with to 4 meters(with a maximum of 5 meters in special circumstances) Wider than that facilitates the corridor becoming a road in practice.

Eligible vehicles:

Snow machines, ATVs and other light footprint vehicles are suitable for trails. Skidders, dozers an other heavy equipment are not.

Extent of vegetation clearing:

Clearing and maintaining a 4 meter wide corridor sustains a trail condition. Wider clearing invites conversion to road use. The nature of trails allow for small diversions around old growth trees and large snags that may be providing unique habitat for species at risk.

 Impact on soils:

Although compaction is to be avoided as an unnecessary adverse impact on soil, the greatest risk in the lands typically subject to mine exploration is rutting of the organic layer and clay soils. Restricting the use of skidders and heavy equipment and judicious use of corduroy roadbeds will minimize damage.

Other concerns:

Timing windows for sensitive species and avoidance of unsuitable landscapes including intact interior forest landscapes and old growth stands should be obvious and standard restrictions.







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