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Nunavut set to approve fossil forest dig’s second year

The Nunavut Research Institute has informally told a group of U.S. researchers that they will get permission to continue excavating at a unique fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island.


MONTREAL — This summer, a team of U.S.-based researchers plan to continue digging up a unique, 45-million-year-old fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island, despite a public furor that erupted last year over their excavation of ancient stumps and logs.

Ben LePage, a Canadian-born scientist who will be leading the University of Pennsylvania team this summer, said he hadn’t yet received an official go-ahead from the Nunavut Research Institute for this year’s activities.

But LePage said the NRI’s director, Bruce Rigby, has informally given him the good news. Rigby also heads the screening committee of the Polar Continental Shelf Project, a major contributor of support services to researchers in the High Arctic.

Although the U.S. project had a three-year permit from the NRI, it was also subject to a review process this year.

“I wasn’t really worried,” LePage said. “It’s unfortunate that this all kind of exploded. As far as I can see, my team and I were completely responsible, and had nothing to hide. Unfortunately, the project is being used by some as a scapegoat for hidden agendas.”

Intrusive methods

LePage did not want to elaborate what those “hidden agendas” might be, but many conservationists were appalled by the disturbance of a fragile site. Canadian paleontologists who also study fossil remains said they were shocked by what they consider to be the US team’s instrusive research methods, which include digging of trenches and chain-sawing fossil wood.

A University of Saskatchewan reseacher, Jim Basinger, who first visited the fossil forest in 1985, a year after it was spotted by the Canadian Geological Survey, recalls being overwhelmed by the implications of this site: a forest from deep in time that is as fresh now as it was then.

Basinger, who is not returning to Axel Heiberg this year, said he is disappointed in the nature of the review process, which is allowing the continued excavation of the site.

“They don’t seem to have learned anything since last year,” Basinger said.

The Canadian Conservation Institute, a federally funded agency, is also extremely concerned about the fate of the fossil forest which, lying outside the boundaries of Qutinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island, has no legal protections.

Today, stumps and logs from that era, as well as remnants of the leaves that covered the forest floor, can still be found in their original positions. These fossil remains are even more extraordinary because they aren’t petrified, or turned to stone, but mummified.

Yet they are fragile, and, according to the CCI, any disturbance paves the way for damaging erosion of the site.

Minimal digging

LePage said a much smaller team would only do the “absolute minimal” amount of digging this coming season, and would avoid digging by selecting only eroded material for samples. Although many samples were taken last year for analysis, LePage said more are still needed. “What we are short of are the tree tops,” LePage said.

In LePage’s opinion, the fossil forest is, above all, an important scientific resource.

“It’s been used as a Holy Grail,” he candidly said. “In fact, it’s just a data point on a graph.” What the US study hopes to learn is why and how trees were able to flourish on Axel Heiberg. One participant said that its results may show that despite the expected chaos due to global warming, climate change may also bring about some positive effects — at least, in the very high latitudes.

Conservationists can’t go

The CCI had also intended to go to Axel Heiberg this year to evaluate damages to the fossil forest site that it had previously mapped and assessed. In March, however, the CCI learned it wouldn’t be receiving the expected services from the Polar Continental Shelf free-of-charge — as had been done in the past — but, instead, the CCI would have to purchase these at cost. Unlike the US project which has a $1.6 million, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the CCI operates on a tight budget.

“We can’t afford to go,” said Carole McIver, spokesperson for the Canadian Conservation Insitute.

For more than a year, the CCI has been lobbying for a moratorium on all activity at the forest until a site evaluation is complete.

“We want a moratorium,” McIver said, “But we don’t have the authority to ask for one.”

The CCI also wants to make sure that the U.S. team has the proper permits to export fossils under the federal law governing the export of cultural properties.

McIver said CCI’s repeated calls to the NRI and Nunavut’s Department of Sustainable Development have so far gone unanswered.

The Nunavut sustainable development department’s 2000-2001 budget earmarked $25,000 for Axel Heiberg, although there’s been no decision yet on how this money will be spent.

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