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Wahnapitae First Nation airs concerns over forest harvesting plans

Lack of information over history, use of herbicides dominate talks at first of five meetings over 2020-2030 Sudbury Forest Management plan

Talks over the next decade-long Sudbury Forest Management plan have just begun with the Wahnapitae First Nation, but many are concerned over the community's lack of knowledge over their own forest and the benefits they are getting.

A meeting in the community on May 31 brought out around 20 people to the community's Maan Doosh Gamig gathering place, as well as many more watching on a live feed, to hear what Vermilion Forest Management and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry had to say about the upcoming 2020-2030 strategy.

“This is the very beginning. We are getting feedback from people that live here and are stakeholders,” said Mark Lockhart, general manager of Vermilion Forest Management. "We are here to get feedback and answer any questions as best we can and take that feedback with us to start developing the plan.”

The Sudury Forest Management Area is roughly 11,000 square kilometres, about half of which, or about 5,430 square kilometres, is Crown Managed Area.

There is a planning committee that includes members of Indigenous and Métis communities, and some of them requested their own community meetings, including Wahnapitae First Nation.

Meetings have already been happening in other communities. Lockhart explained they start years ahead so they can get as much feedback as possible to come up with a plan that best suits people involved.

Almost immediately audience members in attendance and online were airing concerns over any hard data on the historical content of the forest, its health, the use of herbicides, and how much of the old growth will be protected.

Lockhart and Scott MacPherson, planning forester for Vermilion Forest Management, said what the company and the ministry had in their records was available online, as well as a PDF of the last 10-year plan.

He added the company has reached out to this and many other First Nation communities on a regular basis, and participate in different community open houses to ensure they are aware of the forest management activity in their area of interest. They also offer silviculture tours on a regular basis to the different communities.

Stephanie Recollet, environmental co-ordinator for Wahnapitae First Nation, said the main concern for the community is they have not been getting a lot of benefit from the forest.

“What the members are seeing is a lot of extraction, a lot of benefit for Ontario and for other governments and others, but for our people, this is our traditional land, and they have not received a lot of tangible benefits, including jobs, revenue or resource sharing,” she said.

Members would feel more comfortable making decisions if they had more information at their disposal, so they could build capacity. If they are going to go ahead, Recollet said it would benefit the province if the band was better informed so they can go along with their plan more efficiently.

The band does have a sustainable development department, which works with all industries, but no dedicated person for forestry. They do receive assistance from other industry partners in other areas.

“That's not unique. That is happening across the board,” she said. “Ministry of Northern Development and Mines seems to have more resources to invest in capacity development for communities.”

Others voiced concerns over logging inadvertently taking valuable medicines contained in the forest, as well as important species like black ash, which is used to make traditional baskets and as dwindling numbers of oak, maple, red pine and white pine.

There were also concerns raised over the overall health of the forest, including soils, diseases and invasive species.

Lockhart said there could be myriad reasons for this, including natural cycles of insects and blights or drought.

“We don't take soil samples or monitor for infestations,” he said. “I really can't say what's causing this. Things like spruce budworm, the tent caterpillars that are coming out right now, all of those are natural and they have their cycles.”

Harvesting practices, he said, have evolved over the decades and use a system of clear-cutting, as well as a selective cut that leaves trees standing to provide protection for new trees and protect the natural habitat for birds and other animals. To help new trees establish themselves, Lockhart explained herbicides are sprayed to help seedlings and saplings grow.

“Without it, seedlings get choked out by faster growing plants like raspberry and others,” he said. “It at least lets the trees have more time to grow in and re-establish themselves.”

He explained in later comments herbicides, applied both aerially and by ground in the forest, are federally approved for use in forest management. They are used only when absolutely necessary to achieve the desired future forest condition outlined in provincial forest management guides.

To ensure they are properly and effectively applied, they are used only when weather conditions meet specific measures, and prescribed buffers are used to protect values on the forest.

However, they do use manual tending when possible, where herbicide is not the most effective option and when a successful outcome can be achieved to create the desired future forest.

This was an area of concern for many in the room, who asked about the toxicity and the practice of aerial spraying.

Recollet said recently, Anishinabek chiefs of Ontario voted to ban the use of aerial spraying on their community's lands.

She said the band appreciated the people who came out and those who participated online for taking time out of their evening to have their voices heard, even though many of them were worried.

“This community is a little frustrated with this industry and I think that has come out, along with the environmental concerns,” she said. “The herbicide issue, especially. It's pretty big in Anishinabek communities. We want to make sure our forests are managed for benefit of the future generations.”

There will be four more meetings with the community to help further inform community members, Lockhart said.