Ottawa: Nunavut is responsible for Axel Heiberg forest

Heritage Minister Sheila Copps says it’s up to Nunavut to protect sites like the Axel Heiberg fossil forest.


MONTREAL — The future protection of the unique fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island appears to lie in the hands of the Nunavut government.

“It’s a territorial jurisdiction,” said an official from Heritage Minister Sheila Copp’s office. “Therefore, it’s up to Nunavut to do it.”

She says territorial action could be the most direct method to save the fossil forest from any further disturbance.

In July a U.S. team of scientists excavated sections of the delicate forest to measure fossils and re-map the site.

Nunavut could decide to create a new territorial park around the fossil forest site. In other regions, such as the Rockies, provincial parks are located beside national parks.

At the request of Sustainable Development Minister Peter Kilabuk, his department’s officials are studying the fossil forest file.

The review should determine whether the debate over the fossil forest’s recent excavation is a war of words between scientists, an error of process, or an conservation issue.

Katherine Trumper, the Nunavut deputy minister in charge of the Sustainable Development department, promised that the fossil forest file “will be pursued,” although she said that it will take time to unravel the events that led to the U.S. team receiving a permit from the Nunavut Research Institute.

Trumper said that the department will see what can be done before the next research season next summer.

“We’ve never been through this before,” Trumper said. “How do we move quickly to protect it?”

Despite the best efforts of its promoters, the 45-million-year old forest has never yet come close to being adequately protected.

Although some parties have asserted that the site is being considered for United Nations’ protection, this appears to reflect wishful thinking more than reality.

According to the 1972 United Nations Convention on the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage, the fossil forest could qualify as a “natural property.” Canadian World Heritage Sites already include similar sites in Alberta, the fossil-loaded Burgess Shales of Yoho National Park, and the Dinosaur Provincial Park.

But any application to become a world natural heritage site requires national legislation. The nominating country must also demonstrate its financial ability to protect the property.

The fossil forest is still far from receiving this kind of national support.

Since a 1987 management study concluded that it wouldn’t be “feasible” to include the forest within boundaries of the national park on Ellesmere Island, no one has even approached the national parks’ system to try and refit the fossil forest into the park.

If the Ellesmere national park’s borders were to be enlarged, the project’s proponents would have to demonstrate that inclusion of the fossil forest would increase the park’s environmental interest.

“And it would be difficult to manage because it’s so far from there park headquarters at Tanquary Fiord,” said David Murray, head of the Nunavut Ecosystems Secretariat that oversees national parks and historical sites in Nunavut.

Such an enlargement would also become a political issue, because it would increase the park’s operational costs.

The site is also unlikely to become a national historical site, because this ancient forest predates any recorded history by eons.

And while the Canadian Heritage department once considered including the protection of natural landmarks into its mandate, this never happened.

Despite reports that a territorial committee was struck in 1997 to look at how to legally protect the fossil forest, those concerned recall only one conference call where the site’s fate was discussed.

This conversation did result in this year’s brochure from the Canadian Conservation Institute, which tries to advise visitors on the forest’s use.

The CCI, an agency of Canadian Heritage, wants to extend its expertise to the Nunavut government, in order to reassess the site.

At least four other similar sites which contain fossil forests are known to exist on Ellesmere Island and on Axel Heiberg. All are unprotected from visitors.

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