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Grassy Narrows, Ontario government to negotiate pilot forestry project

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TORONTO - Some call it a first step towards a new future in resource management on lands that are aboriginal territories.

Others fear a memorandum of understanding signed by the Ontario government and Grassy Narrows First Nation (Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek) is just another piece of paper - like so many in the history of this Anishinaabe community that has survived forced relocation, mercury poisoning and, most recently, the ravages of industrial forestry on hunting, trapping and other traditional resources.

The agreement binds the parties to ''good faith negotiations'' to develop a short-term agreement that would include a pilot project integrating forestry with traditional uses in a site, still to be selected, of 185,250 to 284,050 acres.

The details and timeframes are expected to take three to six months to work out. Establishing committees and completing activities to be undertaken as part of the talks are expected to take four years. The results of this work will then be used as the basis for negotiating a long-term agreement for the protection, management and use of the forest.

AbitibiBowater Inc. holds the license for the 2.47-million-acre Whiskey Jack Forest Management Unit, three-quarters of which is Grassy Narrows' traditional territory.

While there have been reports that the MOU heralds an end to the logging road blockade Grassy Narrows activists started in December 2002, that's not the case, said Joe Fobister, a member of the community's negotiating team.

''Not unless the government and the company decided to end the clear-cutting. Then it would come down tomorrow.''

Similarly, Grassy Narrows still wants a moratorium on logging so the forest is protected until all the issues have been addressed, he said; but instead, ''it's business as usual out there. ... To me, it looks as if there's been an increase in harvesting.''

In an interview after the signing of the MOU, Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield brushed aside questions about the moratorium. ''We've moved forward,'' she said, adding that she's focused on the work ahead. ''We'll have the pilot up and running as we move forward to whatever the final resolution is.''

Cansfield, accompanied by Fobister, flew over the Whiskey Jack Forest May 12. Their reactions were very different.

Fobister said the forest looked ''terrible'' and he was shocked to see very large clear-cuts and very small buffer zones, with little space for animals.

Cansfield said she was impressed by the protected spaces known as marten cores - usually several thousand acres that the ministry requires companies to set aside for pine marten (a type of weasel prized for its fur) and other boreal forest animals that need large, undisturbed tracts of mature conifer.

In fact, the Whiskey Jack Forest has an unusually low proportion of marten core - 3.7 percent, according to a 2005 study by CPAWS Wildlands League. Ministry guidelines call for 10 - 20 percent.

Currently, according to the minutes of an MNR team working on the 2009 - 19 forest management plan, its estimated marten core will be a skimpy 5.9 percent in 2009, and will slowly increase over 60 years to 8.5 percent.

Despite this projected shortfall, the company has been pushing the natural resources ministry to allow it to cut in several protected areas. Although ministry guidelines may permit selective cutting - no clear-cutting - of up to 30 percent in marten cores, no such harvesting was allowed under the 2004 - 09 Whiskey Jack Forest Management Plan.

But the marten cores are more accessible and will save the company money, AbitibiBowater officials told the MNR team, which is comprised of ministry staff, company representatives, local citizens and aboriginal representatives. (Not Grassy Narrows, which pulled out of the planning process after its 1999 appeal for an environmental assessment of the1999 - 19 management plan was denied.)

The company was unable to get approval at the Kenora district level and in January the matter was referred to regional director Al Willcocks in Thunder Bay. His decision was to ''release'' an entire marten core for harvesting, in the southern part of the Whiskey Jack Forest, outside of Grassy Narrows traditional territory, committee minutes show.

Members of a local citizens' committee that voted against any marten core incursion are upset. ''We've asked for an explanation,'' said non-aboriginal trapper Clarke Anderson.

The release illustrates how easily protection can be stripped from marten core areas, Fobister noted.

However, when Minister Cansfield was told about the decision, she said she'd investigate and get back to Indian Country Today. When she did, it appeared there had been a change. The marten core in question will continue to be protected, she said. ''We made a commitment to the marten habitat, and that's the commitment that we will continue to make.''

Willcocks did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, members of a group of 30 young people who were on a 1,149.5-mile protest march from Kenora to Toronto when the MOU was signed are opposed to talks, Chrissie Swain said by phone from Sudbury.

''There's nothing to negotiate. They've got to stop cutting, we've got to push for that moratorium because by the time they've finished talking, there will be nothing left.''

It was these destructive forest management practices that prompted the First Nation to blaze an international trail of protest. One significant achievement of a market campaign supported by the Rainforest Action Network was a decision in February by Boise Inc. not to use fiber from the Grassy Narrows traditional land use area.

Frank Iacobucci, the former Supreme Court justice who represented the Ontario government in developing the MOU, said the concerns about ongoing forestry are understandable, but he's optimistic that a viable way forward has been charted.

He paid tribute to the people of Grassy Narrows. ''I've been in a lot of negotiating and contentious environments where it's not been as respectful and warm and hospitable. These people will always have a place in my heart.''