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Seeing the forest for the trees (5/03)

Tucked in behind the mill town of Thessalon is a small project that is symbolic of big things to come for Northern Ontario.

Tucked in behind the mill town of Thessalon is a small project that is symbolic of big things to come for Northern Ontario. This is the site of a former Ministry of Natural Resources tree nursery that is being transformed into a state of the art bio-centre by the Thessalon First Nation.

While it once found its purpose in producing tree seedlings to replenish our harvested forests, this facility is being uniquely positioned to focus on the cultivation and processing of products that of late have become known as bio-products. These are the renewable resources other than timber that can be derived from our northern forests and lands.

Also known as non-timber forest products, bio-products represent a rapidly expanding and multi-billion dollar global industry that remains largely undeveloped in our region. This is a broad segment that takes in a wide range of products from edible wild mushrooms and berries to essential oils and natural plant extracts. It is already big business; Canada’s maple syrup and wild mushroom producers alone already contribute over $100 million each annually to our economy.

The opportunity for the development of new economic activity based on bio-products is varied and significant, and the interest in the same is growing among the North’s researchers and community and business leaders. Recently, numerous northern municipalities and First Nations have launched investigations into projects ranging from the harvesting and processing of eastern yew for its highly valuable cancer treatment values, to large scale cultivation and production of bio-fuels. New company names such as the Thessalon First Nation’s Elite Plant Products and the Pic Mobert First Nation’s Forest-Pharma are already appearing on our economic map.

While the strength of the markets for bio-products is becoming self-evident, the growth and expansion of this economic activity will bring with it challenges in management and allocation of these resources. In Ontario, most of the non-timber values of our resources remain unregulated and absent from forest inventories. A significant investment in mapping and assessing non-timber values of our forests is needed to move forward with the development of this sector and should perhaps become integral to forest management planning.

With the growth of this sector we must also prepare for an inevitable debate on what constitutes the highest and best use of our common forests and lands. It is highly possible that the yield of non-timber economic values from a block of forest may exceed that of the timber values.

The leadership and vision that is being demonstrated by First Nations such as Thessalon First Nation is symbolic of the role and value that Aboriginal communities can and should contribute to the assessment, management and commercial development of non-timber forest resources. First Nation people and communities have a distinct, unique and timeless knowledge of the land and a relationship with the land.

First Nation leaders continue to fight against the exclusion or marginalization of their knowledge and interests in the management and allocation of tenure of timber-based forest resources. Our governments and communities have an opportunity to do a much better job of respecting and supporting the development of their communities as we begin to map out our policies for the management and allocation of non-timber resources. At the same time, First Nation leaders need to organize to assert and affirm their interests and jurisdiction over these.

While it is unlikely that we will stop cutting down trees in the foreseeable future, it is nonetheless encouraging that that our communities are finally “seeing the forest beyond the trees.”

Norman Jaehrling is a “freelance” economic development officer and owner of the Possibilities Group, a community economic development firm based in Bruce Mines. He makes his home and livelihood in the small towns of Northern Ontario and can be reached at