‘This was the way to do it’— towns, First Nations, logging companies join up to manage Temagami forest

There’s a new attempt to find a balance between the economy and the environment in northern Ontario’s most watched forest.

For decades, Temagami was gripped by logging road blockades, with environmentalists and Indigenous protesters chaining themselves to bulldozers.

But now some of those who used to be on opposing sides are sitting around the same board table with the formation of the Temagami Forest Management Corporation. 

“This was the way to do it,” says Temagami Mayor Dan O’Mara. 

“To get the people who were all involved in the past together to come up with a future for the Temagami forest that everybody could live with.”

The management corporation is the second of its kind in the province, after one created in the Pic River area in the northwest in 2012.

It brings together logging companies, municipal leaders and First Nations to decide which trees to cut and find buyers for that wood. 

“Even by that happening it’s a statement that we can work together for the benefit of all,” says John Yakabuski, Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. 

“We’ll be talking about this in generations to come because it’ll be managed in that regard.”

Protesters camped out for months in the forests around Temagami in the 1980s and 1990s, blocking logging roads and tying themselves to trees and equipment. (Ottertooth.com )

“It took us six years and a lot of frowns and raised eyebrows and talking and going back and forth around the table,” says John McNutt, the woodland manager for Goulard Lumber in Sturgeon Falls.

The company has cut in the Temagami forest for decades and some of its employees were forced into confrontations with protesters in years past.

McNutt says about 20 per cent of the trees that arrive at their sawmill come from Temagami and he is “hoping it will increase in a positive way” particularly with new markets opening up through partnerships with First Nations.

He is also hoping the new management corporation will cut down on wildfires, like the one that started in Lady Evelyn Provincial Park in 2018. It went on to scorch some 27,000 hectares and threatened towns like Temagami and Elk Lake.

McNutt says from the air he has seen how older preserved stands of trees fuelled the flames, while younger trees in managed forest areas didn’t catch.

John McNutt is the woodlands manager at Goulard Lumber in Sturgeon Falls. (Erik White/CBC )

But John Kilbridge, who took part in the protests of the 1980s and has worked for years to promote wilderness tourism in Temagami, sees this as the province handing the forests over to the timber companies. 

“They don’t want to be paying for all this oversight. They just want to sit back and collect stumpage fees,” he says. 

Kilbridge also says the Ford government’s decision to take forestry projects out of environmental assessment legislation was a “betrayal” because it was “our one way to call the industry to account.”

“I’m not imagining the scenario about the big bad logging companies giving us a hard time. They are giving us a hard time and the government is giving us a hard time. They’re stonewalling us,” he says.

Kilbridge says more permanent logging roads are already snaking through the Temagami wilderness he and others were fighting to protect all those years ago. 

“I think it has been lost,” he says of the battle over the Temagami forest that started in the 1970s.

Much of that was led by the Indigenous peoples of Bear Island. No one from Temagami First Nation or the nearby Matachewan First Nation was available to speak about their involvement in the new management corporation.

There is also a seat at the table for the Timiskaming First Nation, across the border in Quebec.

Chief Sacha Wabie says 60 per cent of her community’s traditional territory is in what is today called Ontario.

John Kilbridge was part of the protests over the Red Squirrel Road expansion in the late 1980s and is concerned that more permanent logging roads have stretched into the wilderness since then. (Erik White/CBC )

“Currently, we are disappointed with the way the forest is being managed, as we are excluded from the decision-making process,” she wrote in an email.

“So, the creation of the new forest management corporation gives us hope that we will have a say in how our lands and territory will be managed.”

Wabie says she hopes the new corporation will lead to more jobs for her community of 2,200, 600 of whom live on reserve and “receive none of these benefits” from the Ontario forests that “generate a lot of profit for a few companies.”

“It is a highly bureaucratic and colonial process,” she says.

“The current forestry regime doesn’t take into account our communities’ traditional knowledge nor do they share the economics gained from our forested lands. These concerns still remain.”

Timiskaming, as well as several Ontario First Nations including Mattagami and Teme-Augama Anishnabai, say they are also concerned about the recently approved plan for the Timiskaming forest to the north of Temagami.

They are worried about the impact of aerial herbicide spraying and the lack of revenue sharing with Indigenous communities. 

Morning North9:18New forest management corporation could help settle divisions over logging the Temagami forest

30 years ago, how many trees were cut around Temagami was the hottest political issue in the province. Now, some of the groups that were once on opposite sides are sitting around the same table and hoping that something called a “forest management corporation” is the way to find a balance between the economy and the environment. The CBC’s Erik White joined us with that story 9:18

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