The never-ending fight to save one Ontario forest

The Farabout Peninsula boasts rare plants, threatened animals, historical artifacts, and more — so why won’t the province protect it permanently?
By Jon Thompson - Published on October 12, 2018
trees in northern Ontario
The 1,084-hectare peninsula is home to thousands of trees — white cedar, black spruce, bur oak, and others. (Jon Thompson)

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MACHIN — For years, a single bald eagle kept loggers out of the Farabout Peninsula.

A 1,084 hectare piece of land that juts into Eagle Lake, the peninsula is home to thousands of trees — white cedar, black spruce, bur oak, and others. It was included under the 2011-2021 Dryden Forest Management Plan, which designates cut sizes and types across nearly 125,000 hectares in the Dryden area. However, several years ago, an eagle’s nest was discovered in a tree on the isthmus that connects Farabout to the mainland. Since the bald eagle is a protected species, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry prohibited development within 200 metres of the nest. That made building a road through the isthmus impossible.

The bird’s presence was welcomed by many Eagle Lake residents, as well as tourism-oriented businesses. They’ve been fighting to permanently protect the Farabout Peninsula, which is noted for its rich biodiversity: the area is home to rare plants (such as the cinnamon fern), sensitive and threatened birds (such as the Canada warbler and the red-necked grebe), and snapping turtles, which the province has identified as a species of “special concern.” Last summer, an archeological dig unearthed evidence that the isthmus was once an ancient Indigenous portage.                                                                                                                                                      

But the tree that held the eagle’s nest has died, and the bird has apparently moved on — leaving the area unprotected. Soon, consultations will begin for the 2021-2031 Forest Management Plan, and those hoping to safeguard the forest from logging are preparing to fight for the Farabout Peninsula again.

Eagle Lake summer resident Dale MacKenzie founded the Farabout Peninsula Coalition in 2008, when she collected 180 signatures on a petition demanding that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry abandon its harvesting plans (the discovery of the eagle’s nest made the petition moot). She says Ontario’s forestry-management system is geared only toward short-term planning. To defend Farabout Peninsula from industrial logging, her coalition will have to keep fighting — today, 10 years from now, and 10 years after that.                   

map of Farabout Peninsula

Residents aren’t the only ones committed to protecting the landscape: the area is a tourist destination for anglers hoping to catch muskellunge, which thrive in Eagle Lake. Jeff Moreau, manager of Temple Bay Lodge, a 92-bed fishing camp that employs 34 locals, welcomes guests from around the world to fish at Partridge Point, on the eastern edge of Farabout Peninsula. He’s concerned that having a clearcut nearby would make it tougher to market his lodge as a wilderness destination.

Farabout Peninsula also has special significance for Migisi Sahgaigan (Eagle Lake First Nation). Though forestry has long been a source of employment for its members, Chief Arnold Gardner sent a letter to new Jeff Yurek, Ontario’s minister of natural resources and forestry, last month advising that the peninsula is on the First Nation’s traditional territory and that the community wants the forest to be protected. As of publication time, Yurek has not responded.

“If they continue to log that area without our consent, we’re going to do something about it,” Gardner says. “By whatever means we have to.” The chief didn’t elaborate, but in Grassy Narrows, about 80 kilometres northwest of Farabout Peninsula, First Nations leaders have declared sovereignty over an area of boreal forest and banned industrial logging there.

This summer, coalition members and volunteers working with archeologist Allyne Gliddon discovered a quartz arrowhead at Farabout Peninsula, as well as pottery dating from between 200 BCE and 1,000 CE. A copper-point arrowhead that Gliddon believes originated 400 kilometres away, near Thunder Bay, may be between 500 and 1,000 years old. These finds may offer another means of protecting parts of the peninsula from logging and development.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry confirmed in a statement that the sites are registered in the provincial database and are entitled to Ontario Heritage Act protection, which could include a buffer zone around the artifacts. The spokesperson noted that protection can also involve restricting forestry operations but added that “further public consultation will take place” through the forest-management process. (That process will be led by the Dryden Forest Management Company, a private board founded in 1995 by former foresters.)

One model for permanent protection is just a stone’s throw from the peninsula’s southern tip. The 3,400-hectare Eagle Lake Islands Conservation Reserve is safeguarded under Ontario’s Living Legacy Land Use Strategy, better known as Lands for Life. That program, rolled out in the late 1990s by the Progressive Conservative government of the time, allows for permanent protection from development for sensitive areas.

Julee Boan, boreal program manager for Ontario Nature, a non-profit conservation group, says Farabout is an ideal candidate for such protection. “This is one of the best cases I’ve seen in the province recently of a site that should be protected,” she says, noting that the area “has high biodiversity values, it has high cultural values, there’s archaeological historical values there. The First Nations community supports it and so do so many of the local interests.”

“We know previous conservative governments have initiated conservation programs before,” Boan says. “We have a new Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. There’s an opportunity for that ministry to define itself by supporting Indigenous-led, locally led conservation efforts. Right now, we still see that opportunity.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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