The “Lands for Life” information centre here last Thursday was designed to allow the public the chance to examine the recommendations being put forth by the Boreal West Round Table and ask questions to members regarding their proposals.
And judging by the steady flow of people who flocked to the curling club from 4-9 p.m. (297 people attended the information centre here compared to 301 in Thunder Bay), it was clear that district residents had plenty of questions and several concerns.
But that’s a good thing, said round table members who were on hand here to answer concerns regarding the proposed changes that will impact Crown land use in Ontario for the next 20 years.
Not all 14 members of the round table were here.
Similar information centres have been held in Red Lake, Marathon, Kenora, Beardmore, Nipigon, Dryden, Thunder Bay, Atikokan, Sioux Lookout, Geraldton, and Armstrong.
Toronto, Kingston, London, and Ottawa also will be hosting public meetings.
“We wanted the public to take a look at what ‘Lands for Life’ is all about,” said Boreal West member Eric Rutherford. “The importance of the process is to work together.
“We get many different views from people but we have to have a base,” he added.
Rutherford admitted the process has been controversial so far. In fact, two committee members made headlines last month when they came out against the round table’s report the day before it was released.
But he said it is imperative the Boreal West area—which encompasses everything west of Marathon and Longlac to the Manitoba border (21,036,989 ha)—has a sense of direction in the future.
The decisions derived from this process will be “crucial” to the future of the land and the people who live here, he stressed.
Rutherford said they are encouraging the public to come forward because he warned this proposal is just the first of two that will be made by the committee. The second is expected to come out in August.
A 44-page tabloid booklet outlining the “Lands for Life’ process has been produced, which people are being asked to fill out and either mail out, drop off at an MNR office, or personally turn over to a Boreal West member.
They also were presented with a series of maps and information outlining the round table’s intention on allocating Crown land.
The four-section booklet contained preliminary indications of which direction Boreal West is headed but round table members stressed nothing is “etched in stone.”
“These open houses are typically a breath of fresh air,” noted Paul Jewiss, a forest industry rep on the round table. “We want to get the public involved. I think some people are scared and panic is starting to surface because there’s uncertainty out there.
“Everyone wants something but half of the process is that [everyone] has to give and take,” he noted.
Jewiss said people in the north are “compelled to make their own decisions about the land” because there are so many who use the area for recreation, or make their living from it.
But he warned it’s not all “gloom and doom” as some people have thought.
Still, several people who attended the last week’s information centre did raise some very serious concerns regarding the proposed changes.
Shawn O’Donnell, president of the Fort Frances Sportsmen’s Club, was concerned the proposal called for all islands on the north arm of Rainy Lake being labelled “conservation,” which would limit boating and recreational uses in that area.
“The ministry wants to protect certain values but it makes no sense to go to the extreme and include the whole area,” O’Donnell argued. “Rainy Lake hasn’t been open there for years but I don’t think it [the conservation idea] is necessary because I think they are doing a very good job out there right now.
“It doesn’t warrant conservation,” he stressed.
O’Donnell also said people are becoming “nervous” about the future because decisions affecting this area are not being made by those who live here.
He said people choose to live here because they like to hunt, fish, and camp, not to mention all those who make their living from the land.
“‘Lands for Life’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people but the people in the south should not dictate what happens up here,” said Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon.
“We don’t make decision about them down there,” he noted.
Mayor Witherspoon also said he’s concerned with the potential impact any changes in the forest industry would have on Fort Frances, warning a change of more than one or two percent on our natural resources could have a detrimental affect on the economy.
But at the same time, he said he had “faith” in the Boreal West members that they will deliver the “right message” to the ministry.
Meanwhile, one thing that should be done without question, say Boreal West members, is a socio-economic analysis, which both Jewiss and Rutherford stressed they will “push hard” to get done.
O’Donnell also endorsed that analysis as being “imperative” due to the financial impact these changes would have on the area.
And he stressed the importance of having people fill out the tabloids and return them to the ministry in order to have their voices heard.
“I’m being told that we’ll be heard so I’m thinking positive. I’d like to see as many people as possible fill out those [forms] because it’s going to affect them for the next 20 years,” he said.
The local sportsmen’s club will be hosting its own information session Monday, June 29 at 7 p.m. at the Elk’s Hall on Scott Street.
O’Donnell said they will try to have members of the Boreal West round table and someone from the ministry on hand to answer questions as well as tell people how to fill out the response book properly.
The meeting is expected to run at least two hours.