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Canadiana, Environment, Ontario Politics

Deal reached to save Experimental Lakes Area

Ontario's Experimental Lakes Area.

Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area.

After months of negotiation, Queen’s Park announced Tuesday morning a deal has been struck to transfer ownership of the Experimental Lakes Area living laboratory in northern Ontario to the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

As part of the deal to keep the freshwater research facility alive, Ottawa—which abruptly cancelled its funding for ELA in early 2012 to save $2 million annually—has committed $250,000 a year for four years in surplus assets and operational funding to help cover transition costs.

Ontario, meanwhile, has earmarked $2 million a year towards keeping the 58-lake research facility going since opening in 1968.

“This just couldn’t be allowed to fail,” said Ontario’s Environment Minister Jim Bradley on Tuesday. “And that’s why we were prepared to step in.”

Britt Hall, associate professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Regina and researcher at the ELA, told me Tuesday it’s a relief that a final agreement has been signed, “but we don’t know a lot of the details.”

One of the biggest challenges facing scientists heading back to the facility for the summer research season will be how Ottawa’s now disbanded ELA science team will be replaced to help oversee operations at the facility.

These former federal employees—scientists mostly, in addition to technical and support staff—were let go by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government soon after it cut its funding in early 2012 without knowing whether a new operator for the site would be found.

“If the federal government had negotiated in good faith I think they would have given those people full benefit … and said ‘We’ll keep you in your positions and won’t force you to make any decisions about your future until you know what the future holds for the IISD,’” Hall said in an interview. “And the federal government didn’t do that.”

Hall hopes that between the new science team assembled by the Winnipeg-based IISD and the scientists returning to the ELA, a continuity can be found in how the facility operates moving forward.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne signalled in April 2013 her government’s intention to keep the Experimental Lakes Area open. An interim agreement was signed on Sept. 2, 2013 by Ottawa, Ontario and the IISD which set a deadline of March 31, 2014 for all parties to sign a new operating framework for the ELA.

Talks took up to the 11th hour and beyond, Bradley told reporters Tuesday, because all sides to the tripartite agreement wanted to make sure the fine print was amenable to everyone.

“I was confident all along we would have an agreement, but when you get down to the final strokes, that’s when it becomes a challenge,” he said. “But we snatched it from falling apart. The federal government was prepared to let it fall apart and our government was not.”

According to IISD president Scott Vaughan, the role of the ELA may soon be expanded to include training, workshops and field courses that will benefit local communities around Kenora, Ontario and Canadian and international scientists working at the site.

“These are some of the very practical considerations that enabled the IISD Board of Directors to give this project a green light,” Vaughan said in a statement.

“At the same time, they have taken a certain leap of faith, because the future success of the ELA is not just in our hands but in the hands of the many people, organizations, companies and governments who share our vision of the importance and possibilities of this facility and on whose financial contributions we depend.”

Scientists shut out of negotiating process

But the notices sent out Tuesday morning by the province and the IISD announcing the deal had been struck were lacking in substantial details, Hall said.

“Scientists have felt a little bit shut out of the process,” she said. “But hopefully those smaller but important details will start to come out now that the negotiations are over. We’re hoping it will open up a little bit more.”

Diane Orihel, a freshwater ecologist and vocal advocate for saving the Experimental Lakes Area, told me Tuesday the scientific community is thrilled with the announcement, providing a conclusion to two years of uncertainty and allowing researchers to continue their work with confidence that a more stable financial and regulatory footing exists.

But she shares Hall’s frustration that Canada’s top freshwater scientists have been effectively shut out of the negotiating process.

“It would have been nice to be engaged early on and trust me—we at the coalition tried very, very hard to reach out to the Conservative government to try to speak with them about finding a solution for ELA, and no one would speak with us, no one would meet with us,” Orihel said.

“So it’s been very difficult and challenging and frustrating to not be part of creating the solution.”

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