Nunavut’s High Arctic wants park to protect fossil forest from coal company

Canada Coal maintains its licenses “keep them out of reach of others”


Ancient tree trunks like this one can be found on Axel Heiberg Island in Nunavut's High Arctic. (FILE PHOTO)

Ancient tree trunks like this one can be found on Axel Heiberg Island in Nunavut’s High Arctic. (FILE PHOTO)

People in the High Arctic communities of Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord say they want to see a territorial park created to protect the ancient fossil forest of Axel Heiberg Island from exploration.

That’s because they fear the unique vestiges of the 50-million-year-old forest may be damaged by exploration activities undertaken by companies such as Canada Coal Inc., which holds licenses in that area.

The future territorial park already has a name, Napaaqtulik, where there are trees, inspired by the forest of towering trees, which once thrived on Axel Heiberg, then died back and was buried under the sandy soil of the Geodetic Hills.

Quttiktuq MLA Ron Elliott spoke in the Nunavut legislature May 13 about how the Hamlet of Grise Fiord is worried about Canada Coal’s plans for coal exploration and mining — and what will happen when or if Canada Coal relinquishes its licenses on Axel Heiberg.

Canada Coal says the company is merely keeping the licenses as a “voluntary defense” to prevent exploration and exploitation of the forest.

In an April 18 letter to Grise Fiord’s hunters and trappers organization, mayor and its community lands and resources committee, Bruce Duncan, Canada Coal’s chief executive officer, said the company had spent $60,000 to “keep them out of reach of others.”

Duncan assured them that “if there are signs of wildlife or petrified vegetation discovered, we simply move to another site.”

Duncan said he would continue consultations with Grise Fiord to see if “a careful exploration plan” can be worked out.

But he also warned this would delay “the development of an affordable Nunavut-owned power and light system and important industrial growth.”

Canada Coal, which owns 75 coal exploration licences covering roughly 2.5 million acres of territory on Nunavut’s Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands, says its 2012 exploration program showed there are “extensive thermal coal deposits, with low sulphur and ash content” located on Ellesmere’s Fosheim Peninsula. These could help solve Nunavut’s energy crisis, the company has said.

But Mayor Liza Ningiuk, the HTO’s Jaypetee Akeeagok and the CLARC’s Larry Audlaluk have said they don’t support Canada Coal’s plans.

They point to the fossil forests as “unique international treasures of global significance,” which should not “be compromised by the ravages of resource exploration and exploitation.”

Although the Greely scientific expedition found fossil forests on Ellesmere Island in the late 1880s, the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg was only spotted 25 years ago.

Since then, it’s been studied by several research teams, dug up by a group of American scientists in 1999, and left unprotected.

Axel Heiberg’s trees and plants, only recently exposed by erosion, become extremely brittle when they’re in the air — and can be damaged by any disturbance.

The process of founding a territorial park to protect the forest could take up to 10 years, the GN said in 2010.

But before a park can move ahead, Nunavut’s environment minister James Arreak said May 13 in the legislature that there must be a study on the mineral resources of the area around the fossil forest.

“Before the establishment of the park, an assessment of its economic development opportunities, either natural resources, petroleum or mineral occurrences would have to be done, Arreak said, in response to a question from Ron Elliott.

“This is a mineral energy resource assessment process. It is only after this type of assessment is completed that a territorial park could be established,” he said.

Last year Arreak said Nunavut was serious about founding a park around the fossil forest.

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