DATELINE: TEMAGAMI, ONT.

A wilderness tug of war

SHERI AIKENHEAD February 29 1988
DATELINE: TEMAGAMI, ONT.

A wilderness tug of war

SHERI AIKENHEAD February 29 1988

A wilderness tug of war

DATELINE: TEMAGAMI, ONT.

In the dead of winter the 350-year-old stands of pine are imposing against the backdrop of snow. For generations the wilderness that surrounds Lake Temagami in northeastern Ontario, about 100 km north of North Bay, has been a favorite haunt of nature lovers—and a steady source of livelihood for loggers, millworkers and tourist operators. But as those commercial activities developed in recent years, local environmentalists have warned that the spectacular but fragile environment needs to be protected. Now, plans to cut a logging road through the region’s remote interior have inflamed the debate about its future and drawn attention to a difficult decision facing the provincial government: to conserve or to develop. Lumber mill operators say that the 15-km road, which would connect two existing roads, is essential to their financial survival. But conservationists contend that the road will mean more logging and increased traffic—both threats to the area’s environment.

At the same time, local residents are at odds over the support that the campaign against the road has drawn from a high-profile group of Canadians including author Margaret Atwood, who spent part of her childhood in the area, and wildlife artist Robert Bateman, who has painted locally. The conservationists accuse their opponents of intimidating residents from speaking out against the road. At recent public meetings, they claimed that their opponents have threatened to burn their houses. Said Atwood, who lives 450 km away in Toronto: “A lot of people up there are intimidated.” But some local people say that they resent the outsiders’ involvement. Said James McClacherty, a geography teacher at New Liskeard secondary school, just north of Temagami village: “I find it offensive to have someone like Margaret Atwood come up here to say how we should use the forest.”

Throughout the 67 scattered townships of the Temagami region, the area’s dependence on natural resources is evident, from the smokestacks looming over the sawmills to the signs that advertise live bait and fishing lodges. But residents are bitterly divided over how those resources should be managed. The environmental coalition that Atwood and Bateman are backing has launched a campaign to create a 1,400square-mile wilderness reserve, which would limit mining and halt further

road construction and logging. But local politicians have heightened fears with predictions that restrictions on economic activity would lead to the loss of 15,000 mining and forestry jobs.

At the heart of the dispute is a proposed extension of the Red Squirrel logging road, which would cut across unpopulated land to connect with another

logging road. Forest industry spokesmen say that the provincially financed extension would give the companies access to timber that the government has already allocated to them. Fred McNutt, co-owner of the William Milne and Sons Ltd. lumber mill in Temagami village (population 1,100), said that if the road is not built he will have to close his business and lay off his 180 employees. “I have an obligation to the town,” he said. “We like to make it possible for our children to stay here.”

But the environmentalists want the province to create a reserve to serve as a buffer zone around the existing 290square-mile Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park, about 20 km northwest of Lake Temagami. Tourist operators and conservationists say that carefully regulated tourism would make up for any loss of jobs—and ensure the survival of the area’s natural beauty. Said Terry Graves, a local legal researcher and chairman of the 2,500-member Te-

magami Wilderness Society: “These

pines are some of the most spectacular on the planet—it would be tragic to see them eliminated.”

Members of the 160-strong Temagami Indian band oppose the road extension. In 1972 they lodged a claim for 4,000 square miles of land that encompasses the proposed reserve, but it remains unsettled. Now, many of the Indians say that they regard the current dispute to be a white man’s fight. Temagami Chief Gary Potts refused to sit on a 16-member review committee that the province appointed last August to review the dispute. Said Potts:

“The loggers hope we keep quiet, and the environmentalists are sensitive to us only when they can use us.”

So far the Ontario government has not made any commitment to establishing a reserve. Instead, Natural Resources Minister Vincent Kerrio has asked the committee, comprising local loggers, tourist operators, property owners, conservationists and others, to submit its report in mid-March. During three days of public hearings that the committee held in the area last month, irate residents overwhelmingly opposed the reserve, and briefs that objected to the scheme outnumbered those in favor by 10 to 1. But opinion on the committee is divided, and several members say that it may not produce a clear decision. In that case, the government will be faced with making a decision alone on one of the province’s most difficult environmental issues.

SHERI AIKENHEAD in Temagami