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--  SPOTLIGHT   --

New Ontario Land Use Program Delivers "Peace in the Woods"truck.jpg (10163 bytes)

By Paul MacDonald

The Ontario government’s recent decision to set aside additional park land and protected areas seems to have won over just about all the stakeholders in the negotiation process, including environmental groups and the province’s forest industry.

The government will be adding 378 new parks and protected areas totaling 2.4 million hectares, which amounts to a net increase of about one-third. It is being trumpeted as the biggest expansion of parks and protected areas in Ontario’s history. Under the grand title of "Ontario’s Living Legacy", the program will see the total protected area in the province increase to 9.5 million hectares — representing an area equivalent in size to all of southern Ontario south of Algonquin Park.

This land base, despite the Ontario government’s previous claims at times that it was not "fixed on percentages", does represent the 12 per cent of total land base Ontario Premier Mike Harris had promised in 1995, which is also based on standards set by the United Nations.

As part of Ontario’s Living Legacy, the government announced the "Ontario Forest Accord" and a $30-million trust fund which Harris says will improve the economic climate for the forest industry. The accord was developed through discussions that included representatives of the forest industry, the partnership for Public Lands and Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. As part of this overall package, a "Living Legacy Trust" will provide $21.5 million to cover the loss of existing forest roads and bridges to the industry, improve multi-purpose resource access, develop new forest management opportunities in the north, increase forest employment through improving the quality of wood from Crown forests and encourage the manufacturing of value-added wood products. All of the above seems like a tall order for a relatively small amount of money.The announcement brings to an end the Lands for Life consultation process, under which roundtables were set up in three areas of the province to make recommendations on land-use options. The roundtables made a total of 242 recommendations and the government says it is acting on 213 and studying a further 25.

For the Ontario forest industry, the government decision on parks and protected areas is generally being viewed as a step forward.

"We view it as a very positive announcement," says Dick Pickering, the new chair of the Ontario Forest Industries Association and senior vice-president of woodlands and wood products at Abitibi-Consolidated. The OFIA represents the major forest companies operating in Ontario.

"Lands for Life was a very long process involving more than 15,000 people, with a further 65,000 making comments on the recommendations. "Pickering adds that the final program took into account the concerns of Ontario’s forest industry, which had a very active role in the roundtables. "I think everyone’s interests were reflected."

There was some fear in the forest industry that the new policy would meet more of the environmentalists’ demands, at the expense of the industry. On top of that is the historical "north-south" split of interests in Ontario. The north of the province is where most of the forest industry mills — and jobs — are located. The south, which includes Toronto, is, as Pickering puts it, "where the votes are".The industry’s important contribution to the Ontario economy is not well understood in the heavily urban southern part of the province. "Sometimes it’s difficult to convince people of the importance of the forest industry in Ontario," says Pickering.

Although OFIA members seem satisfied with the final results and the program, the association is not going to sit back and simply be an observer in its implementation. It intends to be involved in seeing that the actions match the words outlined in the program. "We’re going to strive to make sure the essence of the program is reflected in its execution," adds Pickering. Pickering called the overall process a "great success", noting that even the environmental groups involved in the Lands for Life round tables had positive comments about the policy announcement. "We think we’ve achieved peace in the woods with the mainstream environmental groups with this program. "Achieving peace in the woods is a significant accomplishment, he says. The industry can now focus more closely on other important issues, such as being competitive in an increasingly global forest products market, and can move away from the fights that have been ongoing between the industry and environmental groups.

It’s important that the industry knows where it is going in the future, in terms of a secure land base. Ontario Minister of Natural Resources John Snobelen made reference to this in his comments on the agreement. "New partnerships between environmental leaders and resource industry leaders provide resource industries with more certainty about the land base they may operate on," said Snobelen. "This will improve the investment climate for industry and lead to economic growth."

The industry had set three criteria going into the process, and which it wanted to see reflected in any government decision, Pickering explained. They included no job losses, no increase in costs and no fibre losses.

It initially looked like the program might be lacking in the last area, at least as far one OFIA member was concerned. When Harris and Snobelen announced the program in Sudbury, the OFIA was nowhere to be seen. The reason was simple: One OFIA member company was not satisfied with the accord, due to a potential loss of fibre, and since the OFIA works on the basis of achieving unanimity on such issues — which can be tough at times, considering the association has 18 member companies — they were not present in Sudbury to show their support. It turned out to be a minor matter, however, and within a few days, this particular company’s concerns were addressed and the association is now on side and a full supporter. "We told the premier soon after that we were looking for an opportunity to make our support for the accord public," notes Pickering. The only hesitancy the industry has about the agreement, says Pickering, is that it may affect the industry’s future growth. With an additional land base that has now definitely been set aside as park land or in protected areas, there is no question — if there was before — that it is not available for logging. "There is still plenty of wood north of 51, though," says Pickering. He added that the government will have to work through issues with First Nations groups on resource development in this area.

As for current fibre loss, "the government has done a good job of moving wood around" so the forest industry is not "unduly" affected by the 12 per-cent set aside, he says.

The industry shares the commitment to increasing value added outlined by the provincial government. "Ontario is already a leading area in terms of value added," says Pickering. "As an industry we need to move further up the value - added chain. There is virtually no limit to how far you can go with value added."Pickering speaks positively about the industry’s future in Ontario. "A lot of people tend to think of the forest industry as a sunset industry and it’s not."One group that is definitely not" on side "with the new program are First Nations bands. Shortly after the government announcement was made, native groups were meeting to determine how they could fight the program, saying the allocation of land leaves natives "totally frozen out" of the process. One native group has filed a court application to declare the allocation of lands under the program illegal because the government failed to consult with native groups.Pickering tactfully says it is the association’s view that the provincial and federal governments are the proper bodies to handle issues such as land claims. "Our interest is to continue to do business and be part of the solution. "The industry intends to do that by working with native groups, a process which he noted is already under-way with a number of joint ventures.

 


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