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Between a rock and a hard place

Cottagers returning to their retreats this weekend may be surprised to find that they don't own the mineral rights to their properties, and someone else has staked a claim

Special to The Globe and Mail

It was two years ago that Robin Simpson spotted some damage to the trees lining his property near Gooderham, Ont., in the rolling Haliburton Highlands. "They'd slashed the sides of trees in a line every 400 feet," Mr. Simpson says.

Following the marked trail he eventually came to a tree that had been cut off about four feet above ground. Attached to it was an aluminum tag issued by the provincial Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. It was the first hint that a prospector had been on his property, unannounced and uninvited, to stake a mining claim on the land. Later, digging through the MNDM website, he discovered that his property - and thousands of acres of surrounding Crown and private land - had been staked for a potential open-pit uranium mine.

It's entirely possible that cottagers returning to their lakeside retreats this weekend could make a similar discovery. A small percentage of landowners in Ontario, including Mr. Simpson, only own the "surface rights" to their property, while the Crown retains the below-ground "mineral rights." (The separation of surface and mineral rights is "fairly common" from the Maritimes to British Columbia, says Ramsey Hart of MiningWatch Canada. In Ontario, landowners can check for any claims on their property on the CLAIMaps at the MNDM website.) As a result, anyone who has paid $25.50 for a prospector's licence is free to enter those lands and mark off old-fashioned mining claims.

The provincial government estimates that only 1.4 per cent of all the land in Southern Ontario is "surface rights only."

But there are thousands of hectares of unprotected Crown land surrounding cottage communities throughout the province, and the country, that could potentially be turned into working mines.

After decades of complaints from cottagers and rural residents, environmental groups and native communities, last year the MNDM began holding consultations on modernizing the 141-year-old Mining Act. The result, Bill 173, the Mining Amendment Act, is currently working its way through the legislature.

One immediate result was that on April 30, the MNDM temporarily withdrew lands where owners held only the surface rights from potential prospecting anywhere south of Lake Nipissing and the French and Mattawa rivers. For surface-rights holders north of that boundary, including Lake of the Woods, the status quo remains. The order also grandfathered any claims already staked. Still, Bill 173 falls far short of what anti-mining activists had hoped for.

"We're not very happy, to be honest," says Mr. Simpson, who participated in stakeholder meetings on Mining Act reform. "We're asking that Crown land be taken off the map in Southern Ontario."

Ted Spence, a director with the Federation of Ontario Cottagers' Associations, agrees. "The biggest threat to cottagers is that the Crown land that surrounds them is completely vulnerable to mining."

Currently, once a claim has been staked, a mining company could start exploration work with as little as 24 hours notice, and no environmental assessment is required. That work can be devastating to the landscape. "They can remove up to 1,000 tonnes of material. That's a lot of earth and rock," says Mary Loucks, who's been fighting a proposed graphite mine on and around her 400-acre Long Pond Lake property, near Westport, Ont., since 1992. After seeing the results of other nearby exploration work - "it looked like the trenches in France during the First World War" - she and her late husband, Don, helped form Bedford Mining Alert, a lobby group.

"It's even more destructive than clear-cutting," says Susanne Lauten, who became so incensed when she learned about the possibility of a uranium mine opening up less than 20 kilometres from her Gull Lake cottage, she started up Cottagers Against Uranium Mining and Exploration. "At least with clear-cutting you can plant trees. With open-pit mining that land is gone. All you're left with is a gaping hole."

On the other hand, without mining, industry advocates argue, there are lot of other things we'd be left without. "If you ban mining in Southern Ontario, you won't have any materials to build your roads, or make bricks or concrete," says Garry Clark, executive director of the Ontario Prospectors Association. "You won't have any salt for highways in the winter. Mining's an integral part of society."

Ultimately, the issue comes down to a battle between competing multibillion-dollar industries: mining, and tourism and recreation. "In Southern Ontario, the economy has shifted entirely away from mining and forestry to tourism," Mr. Spence says. With the economy tailing off, prices for minerals have dropped significantly, putting many potential operations on indefinite hold. (The contact number and e-mail for Bancroft Uranium Inc., the company that controls mining rights to 9,000 acres in and around Mr. Simpson's property, for example, are out of service.) But when prices start to rise again, so will interest in mining.

"Mining is still a very powerful sector, even under the proposed act. We have to be fairly watchful throughout the regulation stage. A lot can happen," Mr. Spence says.

In the meantime, cottagers should keep a close eye on their back forty, and look to others for help if they discover miners on their doorstep. (Ms. Lauten's group is holding an anti-uranium mining rally at Queen's Park in Toronto on Sept. 27.)

Several months after the area around Lyn Sparling's Mellon Lake cottage, near Kaladar, Ont., had been presumably protected as a Conservation Reserve, she literally felt the first rumblings of exploration work on a granite deposit. It took her group, No Quarry @ Mellon Lake, six years to convince the government to deny the mining company, Palu-Corbelli Corp., a permit on environmental grounds. "We are, of course, very happy with the outcome of the Mellon Lake quarry battle," Ms. Sparling says. "But just as important to us is the example we set for others. A small group of determined and dedicated people can make a difference."

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