Pressure mounts to bridge the

heart of the Sturgeon River

By Brian Back                                              POSTED: DECEMBER 4, 2009


The forest industry wants to build a bridge through a park that protects the heart of the Sturgeon River, a popular canoe route and one of the last wild rivers in central Ontario.

It wants to do it by breaking the rules.

And it wants Ontario’s approval.

When? Now.

Vermilion Forest Management Company proposed the bridge in 2007 when it began preparation for the new Sudbury Forest Management Plan, which governs logging on Crown land (outside of parks) in the Sudbury Forest, the west side of Temagami.

The park is governed by a park management plan, not a forest plan. The park plan, known as the Temagami Integrated Plan (TIP), was completed in 2007. Vermilion did not then request the bridge, but waited several months to bring it up in the forest plan.

The forest plan must be approved this winter otherwise logging will grind to a halt across the entire Sudbury Forest by April 1. However, Vermilion has not received approval from Ontario Parks to cross the park, which would require a step backward to amend the park plan.

Vermilion is playing brinkmanship with MNR, holding firm its position for the bridge while rejecting the alternative routes — which do not cross the park — it proposed in the forest plan.

“It’s down to the wire,” says Peter Street, Vermilion’s general manager. The company owns and manages the timber license on the Sudbury Forest for its shareholders who do their own cutting.

The bridge is sought for Gervais Forest Products. The company is clear-cutting on the west side of the river  

Map: proposed logging along the Sturgeon River, Temagami

and wants to continue on the east side in the Solace Wildlands.

This is not about obtaining access. That can be gained without crossing the river by using one of the Vermilion's two alternative east-side routes. It is about the cheapest access for Falconbridge-based Gervais.

Gervais, Vermilion estimates, can remove the timber at less cost by trucking it over a new Sturgeon bridge to the new west-side Gervais Road that connects to Capreol. A large portion of the timber will be sold to Domtar, one of Canada's largest forest-products companies.

The east-side alternatives connect through River Valley along older roads that traverse more rugged terrain, and these would require upgrades and repairs, Streets says. It would also take longer to haul the timber out.

There is a quiet transformation in the bush that makes the bridge so compelling, and profitable, to Gervais: gravel expressways. Gervais Road is one. These are replacement roads for the first generation of all-weather roads. They are built straighter, wider, flatter and with better fill. They make the Lake Temagami Access Road look like a beaver trail.

Unlike all-weather roads that have a life span closer to 10 years, these are permanent. The Gervais Road, the second expressway in the area, replaced the Portelance Road (between the Wanapitei and Sturgeon rivers) two years ago.

Two parks officials, who declined to be named, deny rumours that Ontario Parks, a branch of the MNR, has rejected the bridge. They say the parks and timber branches are still in discussion over its merits. The big picture is under deliberation: clearcuts within and road access into the virgin Solace Wildlands, clearcuts on the east and west boundaries of the Sturgeon River, clearcuts on the south boundary of Solace park, and the expansion of the road network on the east side.

Vermilion is in a corner.

If it gets the forest plan approved as is – with the bridge – then it will still require an amendment to the park plan for the crossing, and that requires public input. If it doesn’t get the bridge it will have to do a major amendment to the forest plan to remove the bridge and add an alternative route, also with public input. These costly delays could have been avoided if the issue had been resolved in 2007 park plan. That failure has forced the company to do an end run around the forest plan.

Street has gone to the director of Ontario Parks and given her his social, environmental and economic justifications for the bridge. It is a backhanded slap in the face of the management planning system that is the cornerstone upon which forestry is governed. Ironically, the system favours the industry by protecting its timber allocations.

He told the director that crossing the Sturgeon River has the least environmental and recreational impact.  The alternative routes will require that timber be trucked through another park, the Obabika River Park. More fuel will be burned. And more canoe routes will be crossed.

Amber Ellis of Earthroots disagrees. "The road through Obabika already exists and all parks and canoe routes are already crossed except the upper Yorston River. That can be avoided by using Vermilion’s alternative on the west side of Yorston Lake."

Street is clear that he will pull political strings. “We can obviously go the Minister of Natural Resources if need be,” he says.

The minister's decision will ultimately be guided by the new parks act. It lays out criteria for construction of roads in parks: there are no reasonable alternatives, lowest cost is not the sole or overriding justification, and all reasonable measures are taken to minimize environmental damage.

However, the act also states the “minister must be satisfied” with these measures. Courts traditionally side with ministers when there is discretion, as happened in the Bob Lake Road (near Sharp Rock Inlet) court ruling in 2003. But this time the discretion gives the minister less wiggle room.

Earthroots not only opposes crossing the Sturgeon but opposes cutting in the Solace Wildlands, one of the last virgin wildernesses outside of a park in central Ontario.

“We are looking at a legal challenge,” says Ellis.

With Earthroots, Friends of Temagami and Northwatch opposing Vermilion, they remind the industry of Temagami's sour reputation. It's one of the most prohibitive areas to log.


Map of Sudbury forest

Clearcuts closing on the Sturgeon

Loggers want another Sturgeon Park crossing


Map: planned logging of Solace Wildlands in Temagami

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