A glass half empty or half full? There is reason for optimism that the latter will be true for Ontario miners after the provincial government recently unveiled a plan to permanently protect half of its massive boreal forest, because the ruling Liberal Party also has promised to revamp the antiquated Ontario Mining Act, which dates back to 1873 and has long been criticized by both mining companies and aboriginal groups alike for its lack of modern sensibilities.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has laid out a plan that would permanently preserve at least 50 percent—some 87,000 square miles, or an area about half the size of California—of the province's gigantic Northern Boreal zone for tourism and aboriginal use.
The region as a whole—almost 175,000 square miles—makes up about 43 percent of the province's land mass and is considered an integral carbon sink. About 97 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are stored in the area, which absorbs another 12.5 billion tonnes each year. More than 200 sensitive species of animals—from monarch butterflies to woodland caribou and polar bears—make their home there.
"Although the Northern Boreal region has remained virtually undisturbed since the retreat of the glaciers, change is inevitably coming to these lands," McGuinty said when announcing the plan, touted as the largest commitment to conservation in Canadian history. "We need to prepare for development and plan for it."
The good news for miners is that the province's new initiative calls for a massive mapping to be undertaken over the next 10 to 15 years that should help identify promising new ore resources in the areas that remain open to development. The goal is to determine the specific lands that are best set aside as carbon storehouses and for species protection, while identifying lands that contain the most mineral resources to help keep the mining industry very much alive.
While it's easy to decry the fact that ore-hungry miners are losing out on a big chunk of prime property, what they'll be left with will still comprise a mind-boggling tract of land that they would have been hard-pressed to fully explore on their own.
Already far and away Canada's largest mining province, with revenue of around Canadian $10 billion ($9.4 billion) annually, money spent on exploration in the province during the past four years has more than doubled and should top C$600 million ($563.6 million) this year, according to the Ontario government.
The Ontario Mining Association estimates that prospectors and mining companies have staked only about 3 percent of the boreal area—a remote territory with limited access by conventional means. Float planes or helicopters often are the only options. Nevertheless, the region is already home to nearly 6,000 mining stakes, according to data from ForestEthics, a San Francisco-based environmental organization.
Ontario wants its mining industry to remain strong, while at the same time modernizing the manner in which mining companies stake and explore their claims, taking into consideration the rights and needs of private landowners and aboriginal communities.
Aboriginal groups—representing 24,000 people living in 36 communities in the Far North—would work with scientists and industry to chart the area and have been guaranteed a share of potential proceeds. In a show of good faith, McGuinty has vowed to put some money into the hands of First Nations groups by this fall to get the ball rolling.
That type of cooperation between mining interests and native groups in itself would be a boon for the industry, as relations often have been tense. The most recent public example stems from a land-ownership dispute between the community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninwug and Markham, Ontario-based junior miner Platinex Inc. that has seen numerous lawsuits filed by both sides. Six leaders from the community and one other were jailed from March until late May after they defied a court order and blocked exploration efforts by Platinex at the Big Trout Lake property, thought to contain a huge nickel, chromium and platinum group element-bearing structure.
To help avoid such heated disagreements, McGuinty has promised no new mining or logging projects will be allowed until local land-use plans have been implemented with full support from native communities. Activity will be allowed to continue on the areas that have already been staked.
Opponents have accused the government of being long on promises and short on details, and many leaders in northern mining communities have expressed fears about the potential for a slowdown in economic activity. Indeed, Ontario could be putting at risk a key pillar of its economy in an effort to score political points on the "green" front. There's always a chance that such an ambitious mapping program could backfire and shut miners out of some of the province's most lucrative mineral resources.
But it also could be a monumental step in rectifying acrimonious relations between aboriginals, environmentalists and mining companies. At the very least, the changes should ultimately bring certainty to the mining industry, and that might be what it needs the most.