Great Lakes Heritage Coast: Imagine the Possibilities!

Great Lakes Heritage Coast: Imagine the Possibilities!

Bruce Petersen, based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, is Chair of Environment North’s Land Use Committee and represents World Wildlife Fund Canada on Great Lakes Conservation matters.

The government of Ontario launched the Great Lakes Heritage Coast (GLHC) project on January 27, 2000, in Thunder Bay, the largest Canadian city located on Lake Superior. The project’s goal is the long-term protection of the Heritage Coast’s significant values and natural resources, while promoting the tourism benefits of its scenic and cultural heritage.

In launching the project, the government encourages all participants to “imagine the possibilities.” To help us do that Ontario Premier Mike Harris (equivalent to a State Governor) enlisted the support of some 15 prominent Canadians as ‘Champions of the Coast’. Roberta Bondar, the first female Canadian astronaut and the world’s first neurologist in space, is one of these Champions. She writes:

“Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, I had a dream — to fly like a bird and look at the stars. While flying aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1992, I was able to look down on Canada and the Great Lakes Heritage Coast, where I grew up. Looking at it from space, you realize how the people, the communities and the natural environment are linked to one another. I realized what a precious part of the world the Coast is — rugged and beautiful. But it’s an environment that needs protection, too. If the children of tomorrow are going to love the Coast as I do, we have to ensure we take care of it today.”

The coastal area under consideration spans some 2900 kilometers (1800 miles) from the Minnesota/Ontario border at Pigeon River on the west to Port Severn on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay to the east and covers in excess of one million hectares (2.47 million acres) of Crown (public) and private land.

Three hundred thousand or so people living in the 18 First Nations and more than 20 communities, some of them single-industry towns, along the coast are ambivalent about yet another government project that could impose further restrictions on their activities and the likelihood that the world may rush to enjoy the wilderness they treasure. They want things to stay just as they are. But many also recognize the need for economic diversification, such as that which tourism endeavours concentrated in nodes near or within their communities could provide.

The government’s GLHC project team has approached local people with great care. Three rounds of public consultations will have been completed within 8 months of announcing the project. The effectiveness of this effort to listen first is apparent in the growing enthusiasm for the GLHC vision along the coast. Community leaders on Manitoulin Island, a huge land mass located in Georgian Bay and not included originally within the proposed GLHC boundary, made submissions that the island be included. It has been.

The basis for this public conversation in the September, 2000, round of community consultations is a 36 page Discussion Paper. World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) primary concern in all such conversations is the protection of the ecological integrity of the GLHC and the management of its protected areas in ways that avoid incremental development and preserve the representation of natural heritage values. So we are encouraged to read on the first page of the Discussion Paper that the first priority in the management of the GLHC will ensure “protection of its outstanding beauty and natural ecosystems.” However, the 12 projects to “be undertaken as soon as possible” focus largely upon cosmetic development undertakings, such as developing trail systems, giving highway designations, and providing for additional signage, interpretive centres, publications, a video, and an internet site. While they may be worthwhile, these initiatives begin the process of developing the GLHC before a strategic plan is in place.

Two of these 12 projects to “be undertaken as soon as possible” are more substantive. Ontario has just gone through a land use planning exercise called Lands for Life. The actions arising from that process are published in Ontario’s Living Legacy: Land Use Strategy (July, 1999). A considerable number of parks and protected areas were added within the proposed boundary of the GLHC and require legal regulation and management plans. Recommending the fast-tracking of that process is welcome. Welcome also is the recommendation “to compile and develop the ecological information needed for decision-making on the coast.” Successful balancing of protection and development should be firmly founded on thorough science-based ecological data.

Unfortunately, these ‘hurry-up’ recommendations precede the establishment of an agency with the capacity to direct an integrated process. A ‘Steering Committee’ to develop a GLHC Strategy is proposed at some unspecified later date. A consulting firm to support this committee is also mentioned. WWF believes that the following should be made immediate priorities:

  • Compose Terms of Reference for the Steering Committee;
  • Select a broad-perspective group of committee members, including environmental representatives;
  • Write Terms of Reference for the consulting firm and select it concur- rently with the appointment of Steering Committee membership;
  • Undertake the visionary possibilities with firmer resolve and with substantive measures.

The Great Lakes coast is not wall-to-wall pristine wilderness. A useful first step in GLHC planning would be a map that accurately recorded all the multiple-use boundaries within the GLHC Area of Influence. Determine community, township, park and protected area, mining, cottage, etc. so that land use interests along the coast are clearly identified. Tourism and other development may then be encouraged within development nodes and as much of the GLHC as possible left wild, mysterious and alluring.

Much of the GLHC will be water. In that regard two other immediate government actions would be commendable. A Regional Committee is working diligently to promote the establishment of a Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) by the Canadian Government. Ontario should see that this exciting venture is quickly legislated and included within the GLHC Strategy. While the Lake Superior NMCA would encompass some 11,000 square kilometres (4300 sq. miles) of water, the GLHC will include much more lake surface. Clean, potable water is increasingly valuable as world reserves diminish. Ontario should immediately assess water quality within the GLHC and take whatever measures are necessary to restore quality where it is polluted and maintain what remains pure.

“Imagining the possibilities” is very exciting. Achieving the promise, particularly from the perspective of those of us whose main concern is the environmental integrity of the coast’s wilderness, will be arduous. But global ecological values face relentless assaults, both incremental and catastrophic. The foresight and courage shown by Ontario’s provincial government in challenging coastal residents to secure the long-term protection of what we love so dearly is praiseworthy.

The Discussion Paper concludes: “Should the Ontario government proceed with these proposals, it would demonstrate its commitment to the coast and serve as an example for other levels of government of ways they can make the Great Lakes Heritage Coast a living reality as a keystone part of Ontario’s Living Legacy.” Agreed!

*A copy of the Discussion Paper may be obtained by writing or e-mailing:

Mr. Ted Chudleigh, M.P.P.
c/o Great Lakes Heritage Coast Project Team
Ministry of Natural Resources
Suite 221A
435 South James Street
Thunder Bay, Ontario P7E 6S8


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