408-year-old tree discovered in Algonquin Park’s unprotected logging zone

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Researchers have discovered a 408-year-old tree amid a stretch of old-growth forest in Algonquin Park, located in an unprotected zone open to logging, the Star has learned.

The Ancient Forest Exploration and Research group — a non-profit, charitable educational organization — recently made the find west of Cayuga Lake.

Mike Henry, senior ecologist with the Ancient Forest Exploration and Research Group, tangles with the 408-year-old tree.
Mike Henry, senior ecologist with the Ancient Forest Exploration and Research Group, tangles with the 408-year-old tree.  (Ancient Forest Exploration and Research Group)

It also identified three trees that are more than 300 years old, and five that are more than 200 years old, out of the 10 trees examined.

“Based on mapping we’re pretty sure significant tracts of very old forest have also been logged in the past 10 years, or are currently being logged,” senior ecologist Mike Henry told the Star. The group is now calling on the provincial government to safeguard the area.

“We are confident that there are many more trees older than 200 years located in the Cayuga Lake area” — and likely more that are twice that age, said Peter Quinby, the research group’s founder who completed his doctorate at the University of Toronto studying habitat and vegetation in Algonquin.

The hemlock located last fall is estimated to be more than 408 years old, and “we can only know the ages of the remaining trees by coring trees and counting rings,” Quinby added. “This should be done as soon as possible. We now know that old-growth forests are carbon sinks — so by protecting and restoring them, we can help to maintain our climate.”

In Algonquin Park, roughly 24,000 hectares of old-growth forests are believed to be in zones open to logging. Overall, 65 per cent of the sprawling park in cottage country, about three hours north of Toronto, is unprotected.

In 2000, under Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris, the “Living Legacy” initiative expanded and protected parks, including areas inside Algonquin.

Then, in 2014, the province’s environmental commissioner at the time, Gord Miller, recommended an end to all logging in Algonquin, noting it was the only provincial park in Ontario where it’s allowed.

Core samples from some of the Algonquin trees discovered by the Anicent Forest Exploration and Research.
Core samples from some of the Algonquin trees discovered by the Anicent Forest Exploration and Research.  (Anicent Forest Exploration and Research)

In fact, Algonquin is believed to be just one of two provincial parks in the entire country where logging occurs.

The Ministry of Natural Resources “should bring the management of the province’s flagship park into alignment with the important role of provincial parks today and afford Algonquin Park the same level of protection as the rest of Ontario’s protected areas,” Miller wrote, adding he “strongly urges (the ministry) to end commercial logging in Algonquin Provincial Park.”

Miller said the Liberal government of the day “should live up to its commitment to the conservation of biodiversity by ensuring that all provincial parks and conservation reserves receive appropriate protection.”

The Algonquin Forestry Authority’s management plan for the park will soon be updated for 2020-30, and several groups will be pressing to expand protected zones.

Mike Henry records the height of a 235-year-old tree in Algonquin Park near Cayuga Lake.
Mike Henry records the height of a 235-year-old tree in Algonquin Park near Cayuga Lake.  (Mike Henry)

At the same time, the Ontario government under Premier Doug Ford has begun consultations to “kick-start” the forestry industry, given 51,000 job losses in the past 10 years — although it has said standards will not be watered down. A report is expected this summer or fall.

The ancient forest group says the 408-year-old tree is part of four neighbouring old-growth forest tracts near Cayuga Lake, totalling 1,845 hectares, about half of which are open to logging.

“It’s pretty rare,” said Dave Pearce, forest conservation manager for environmental group CPAWS Wildlands League. “It’s significant old growth.”

His group has lobbied for a wind-down of logging, and says it can be done “with no loss to timber supply.”

Algonquin is an important park because old trees store more carbon than younger forests, and are “incredibly important for biodiversity,” Pearce added.

“A number of species dependent on old-growth are becoming more rare as that type of forest disappears.”

There are very few of these old, pristine forests in Ontario," Mike Henry said.
There are very few of these old, pristine forests in Ontario, » Mike Henry said.  (Mike Henry)

Algonquin is “extra valuable” because it could be a considered a refuge for hemlocks, which have been hard hit in other areas by the woolly adelgid. The invasive pest is not in Algonquin as yet, possibly because of the colder climate.

Algonquin Park is well-managed in terms of separating recreational use from logging activities, “but the whole premise of Algonquin being a park is a joke — parks are places where you don’t log,” Quinby said.

Forests “are not just for cutting trees down to get two-by-fours and plywood,” he said, adding that the typical approach to forestry is not to let trees get any older than 100 to 150 years, when their growth slows.

“We need legislation that says some ecosystems are endangered, and we should protect them.”

Henry said he has cored two hemlocks more than 400 years old — the one in Algonquin and another outside Peterborough.

“There are very few of these old, pristine forests in Ontario,” he said.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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Declaring sovereignty over land, Grassy Narrows FN leaders ban clear-cut logging

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Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting the boreal forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim meant to help the community recover from decades of pollution.

There is currently no ongoing industrial logging in the part of the Whiskey Jack Forest that sits in territory Grassy Narrows leaders say is their peoples’.

A local resident catches a fish in the Wabigoon River. Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting parts of the forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim.
A local resident catches a fish in the Wabigoon River. Industrial loggers are banned from clear-cutting parts of the forest near Grassy Narrows, leaders of the First Nation have declared in a land sovereignty claim.  (Todd Korol / Toronto Star)

Though the provincial government has decided who can log and where, the community announced a moratorium in 2007 and there has been no harvesting since the company operating in the area agreed to leave shortly after. Then, in 2017, Ontario’s previous government promised no cutting for at least five more years.

Grassy Narrows leaders fear the new Doug Ford government will re-open the forest to business. A spokesperson for Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Jeff Yurek said “we cannot comment on a document we ourselves have not yet received. »

“We are the Indigenous people of this land. … Industrial logging makes our ongoing mercury crisis worse,” said the declaration signed by Chief Rudy Turtle and council. “We will make our own decisions and there will be no industrial logging on our Anishinabe Territory.”

Between 1962 and 1970 a Dryden, Ont., paper plant dumped 10 tonnes of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, in the Wabigoon River. The site of the plant, now under different ownership, is upstream from Grassy Narrows. The mercury contaminated the fish and poisoned the people who ate the fish. They developed tremors, loss of muscle co-ordination, slurred speech and tunnel vision, and still suffer today.

Read more:

Landmark study reveals ‘clear evidence’ of mercury’s toll on health in Grassy Narrows

Opinion | Is Grassy Narrows poisoning a crime against humanity?

‘I started to have seizures at the age of 2.’ Ontario residents describe the ravages of mercury exposure

Logging could lead to more mercury being released to the environment, scientists have said, adding toxic insult to injury for a First Nation already devastated by industrial mercury dumping decades ago.

Over the past two years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish downstream near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province, that there is mercury-contaminated soil and river sediment at or near the site of the old mill, and the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone in Grassy Narrows or nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.

Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and is polluting the river.

Clear-cut logging threatens to add another source of mercury to the water. Here’s how it happens: Mercury gets released into the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants and incinerators and later rains down in forests where it gets trapped in the soil. When a forested area is clear-cut (a large number of trees in one area are uniformly cut down), mercury can run off into lakes and rivers, where its potency gets magnified in aquatic life and travels up the food chain.

Since 2002, some Grassy Narrows members have maintained a blockade of a main road that prevents industrial access to woodlots near their community.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was in the community north of Kenora Tuesday and signed the declaration as a witness.

“I support their Declaration and their goals of reconciliation, restoration and reparations,” Bellegarde said in a prepared statement. “All governments must recognize, respect and honour our rights and responsibilities to our traditional territories. This includes the right to decide what happens in our territories.”

The Star obtained data from several individuals and it supports what the people here have been saying for decades: Residents have been exposed to dangerously high levels of mercury and younger generations have probably been affected as well. (The Toronto Star)

Top environment ministry officials had serious concerns about a plan to clear-cut near Grassy Narrows, the Star has previously reported.

“Yes, logging introduces Hg (mercury)!” one scientist wrote to a colleague in an internal email. In another email, the former director of the branch that oversees scientists charged with monitoring Ontario’s environment observed that “no one is tracking the downstream implications” of the province’s logging plan.

A logging, or forest management, plan determines how much and where tree harvesting can occur, where roads can be built and how much forest will be renewed. The plan is renewed every 10 years after consultations with stakeholders.

Despite the worries of environment officials, the ministry in 2014 rejected a request by Grassy Narrows for an environmental assessment of the potential impact of the 10-year logging plan in effect then. Grassy Narrows lawyers asked for a judicial review of the ministry’s rejection and the plan itself but then suspended their court fight when former natural resources and forestry minister Kathryn McGarry said there would be no logging in that area for the remaining five years of the plan.

Next year the provincial government is scheduled to begin discussions for the 2022-2032 plan, according to a 2017 letter from the provincial government to Grassy Narrows.

Levi Kokopenace, a Grassy Narrows resident, told the Star last year that he believes mercury caused his hearing problems. He says he was bullied as a child and has contemplated suicide. According to a government-funded health survey, Grassy Narrows residents report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than other First Nations residents.
Levi Kokopenace, a Grassy Narrows resident, told the Star last year that he believes mercury caused his hearing problems. He says he was bullied as a child and has contemplated suicide. According to a government-funded health survey, Grassy Narrows residents report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than other First Nations residents.  (Randy Risling / Toronto Star)

Meanwhile, more than four decades after mercury was dumped by the mill upstream, the physical and mental health of the people in Grassy Narrows is by many key measures “considerably worse” than that of other First Nations in Canada, according to a landmark government-funded survey that was released earlier this year.

While what Grassy Narrows is declaring “could at first glance seem like a radical demand — asserting their sovereignty over their traditional territories” — it is a reasonable and necessary step to take given the “more than half-century of neglect and destruction of their environment … as a result of failure of governments to respect their rights,” said Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International.

“Who’s in the best position to make the decisions for the future of Grassy Narrows?” said Benjamin, who is Amnesty’s campaigner for Indigenous rights. “(Government) failures are apparent. And it’s not just one failure. It has been decade after decade they have failed the people of Grassy Narrows.”

The land declaration also bans mineral staking and mining, hydro damming and oil and gas extraction.

“Our way of life has been under attack by residential schools, … mercury pollution, and racism,” the statement says. “Now our fish are unsafe, the moose and caribou are nearly gone, we have less marten, wild rice and blueberries. Our medicines are tainted.

“Our sovereignty and our rights have been repeatedly violated by harmful decisions forced on our people by government and industry.”

Last year, the provincial government committed $85 million to clean up the river, and the federal government has pledged to help build a mercury care home that will help some of the sickest residents.

The declaration demands compensation for the logging of roughly 20 million trees over a 20-year period.

The declaration will be enforced under Grassy Narrows “own authority,” though Grassy leaders invited the provincial and federal governments to recognize and enforce it through legislation that places similar restrictions on land use and management.

“Decisions forced on our people have poisoned our fish and degraded our forest through industrial logging,” said Chief Turtle. “Moving forward we will make our own decisions to protect what is left of our way of life.”

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