By Brian Back

THE WORLD'S LARGEST remaining old-growth red pine forest surrounds Wolf Lake, containing trees between 140 and 300 years old. Canoeists paddle through, captivated by the rugged ridges, crystal-clear water and quartzite scarps, oblivious to the ecological treasure surrounding them.

The science void: Until recently no scientist called it the largest. Old growth is a wretched backwater of research funding as there is no money to be made with the results, but one group found the resources, Ancient Forest Exploration & Research, and did the work.

The red pines grow in uncommonly large pure stands, or in stands where giants form a super-canopy over the forest.

"Some of these are quite large trees," write Michael Henry and

Wolf Lake Old Growth Red Pine map

Peter Quinby in their forthcoming book Ontario's Old-Growth Forests, "such as those found on or near the campsite on the west shore of the lake, which are 250 to 300 years old and survived at least four fires." Yet many are deceivingly small. "On dry rocky ridges with little soil, the oldest red pines can be 200 years old while measuring 20 centimetres in diameter and only seven metres in height (your canoe is over five metres long)!"

If red pines could sing, their anthem would be The Doors' "Light My Fire." Fire takes life out of the forest to give pines life in it. When fire burns off the duff on the ground the seeds can reach soil and sink their roots. And it pulls back the canopy to the joy of these serious sun worshippers.

But they aren't supplicants to the inferno. In maturity they co-exist by growing thick, fire-resistant bark, and lifting their limbs above the reach of ground fires. A look around the lower trunks of mature trees will reveal the fire scars. The last major fire, ignited by lightning, swept across the eastern ridge on Wolf Lake in 1978.

This forest has two real enemies, one obvious and one not. The obvious is logging, and it came late to the party. About 1901, a series of logging dams were built by an unknown company, but never used. Was there too much red pine when the market preferred white? Were the pines too small? Did the owner of the timber rights have business problems or wait to time the market?

Despite a hundred years of logging in the region, the Wolf Lake corridor the stretch of lakes between Matagamasi and Chiniguchi remained virgin timber and that was just too profitable to ignore.

Prior to 1955 there had been logging around the north end of Matagamasi, and in the mid-1960s to the northeast of Dewdney. There was also local-use logging around the old trapper's cabin on Silvester, and two prospecting sites on Wolf Lake.

Goulard Lumber was one of the last mills still capable of sawing large-diameter logs the big, old pines so it was no surprise it got the prize. In preparation, between 1985 and 1987, Goulard built a logging road into the Wolf Lake corridor, the Mackelcan Road (aka Wolf Lake Road). 

After the stands to be cut were picked by MNR through the use of Forest Resource Inventory (FRI) maps made from aerial photos, area forester Harry Struik went in for a better look from the ground. What he saw did not match up with what the maps told him was there. He was struck by the old age, concentration, density and extent of the red pine. At that time old growth did not exist outside of the West Coast's rain forests, as far as scientists and governments were concerned.



                                                                               MIKE HENRY/AFER

Wolf Lake red pine, east shore, estimated to be 300 years of age.



BACKGROUND: Old Growth In-depth

Chiniguchi overview

New Chiniguchi Park

Largest old-growth red pine forests


POSTED: 01.19.07  UPDATED 09.09.09

Struik had seen nothing like it in the entire Sudbury forest. "It became my decision that we weren't going to harvest the old-growth red pine." This did not sit well with Goulard, but he stood his ground. "I used my authority and duty."

Struik was only the first to be surprised. "On a personal note, when first hired to do this job," wrote Ken Mott in his 1996 old-growth survey for the Sudbury Naturalists' Club, "I was surprised and a bit skeptical to learn about an old growth forest so close to Sudbury. While the area obviously has been affected by the impact of forestry and mining pollution, its resilience is admirable."

                                                                                                                                                DAVID BOURDELAIS

Wolf Lake looking east

Once the road was constructed, pressure increased on Struik to allow cutting. But fate showed its hand. A battle had been concurrently raging over old growth in Temagami. That controversy, kicked off by the Temagami Wilderness Society, compelled the provincial government to recognize old growth and protect it. In 1990 MNR hired forester Norm Iles to search across Ontario for large old-growth red- and white-pine forests.

In November Iles identified ten significant clusters, including 623 hectares around Wolf Lake. A month later, two of Goulard's stands near Wolf that had been approved for logging were frozen on the order of the Minister of Natural Resources.

Iles relied on the flawed FRI and did not do a ground search. Local environmentalist Viki Mather and the Sudbury Naturalists' Club knew that Iles work understated the extent of the red pine, and pressed for permanent protection of all of it. In 1995, a 1,200-hectare, five-year, no-cut zone was created in the forest management plan to prevent more stands from being allocated. This was a short-term measure, one that could be easily be overturned at the end of the management plan.

With limited resources, the Naturalists published its own search in the 1996 Mott Report. Although not a complete inventory of the area, it expanded the range shown in the Iles research. In 1999, Ontario's Living Legacy Strategy announced plans for the Chiniguchi Waterway Provincial Park that would include the Iles red pine plus some identified by Mott. The Naturalists had succeeded in enlarging

the area protected, but it was not all they hoped for. Until its regulation, the planned park area was protected as the Wolf Lake Forest Reserve.

Last year the park was regulated, but less than half the reserve's red pine area was converted to park. Why? The second enemy. The rest of the reserve (yellow on the map above) was under mining claims and leases held by Flag Resources, a penny-stock operator from Alberta. The reserve did not halt mining activity. Only a park could do that as the expropriation of mining rights was part of its creation, but the province feared legal liability.

Flag is the financial vehicle for promoter Murdo McLeod, who has been fixated on the area since 1980. He has found nothing of commercial value, yet has managed to hustle up enough exploration money to periodically send in a tractor train hauling drills, wreaking havoc on the forest. The damage can be found around Wolf, on its west shore and to the south.

Under pressure from the mining industry, MNR has discussed dissolving the reserve and finding replacement park land elsewhere. Mining, and probably logging, would have free rein with the old growth. That would mark the end of this world-class ecological gem.




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