Why the Experimental Lakes Area matters

Open letter to Yukon MP Ryan Leef: Thank you for holding an open house to discuss next year's budget plans. It is unlikely that Yukoners' opinions will influence policy. Nevertheless I was happy to finally meet you.

Open letter to Yukon MP Ryan Leef:

Thank you for holding an open house to discuss next year’s budget plans. It is unlikely that Yukoners’ opinions will influence policy. Nevertheless I was happy to finally meet you.

During our conversation, we discussed the termination of scientific laboratories and programs by the Conservative government. The subject of the Experimental Lakes Area came up. You told me that you hadn’t heard of it.

The Experimental Lakes Area is a series of freshwater lakes in the Kenora region of northern Ontario that were set aside for scientific experiments in 1969. These lakes sit on the Precambrian Shield. Their watersheds are distinct from other watersheds in the region. This is why they were chosen.

For over 40 years, through the manipulation of these whole lake ecosystems, experiments were conducted to understand the effects of pollution, UV radiation and climate change. Long-term records for limnology, climatology and hydrology have been collected at ELA. The results of these experiments have influenced public policy in the United States, Europe and, until recently, Canada.

The study of the effects of acid rain on whole lake ecosystems led Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to negotiate the Air Quality Agreement with the United States in 1991. The studies by David Schindler, an internationally respected limnologist, at ELA resulted in the banning of harmful phosphates in detergents. Studies of the effects of sulphuric acid on the acidification of fresh water lakes influenced the decision to put in place the emissions controls we now have in our cars.

Phosphate and nitrogen run-off from fertilizers and manure have resulted in the growth of blue-green algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg, which will turn it into a dead lake if nothing is done. Global Nature Fund declared it “Threatened Lake of the Year for 2013.” Ray Hesslein of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation science advisory board said, “Much of the fundamental understanding of nutrient management in lakes so critical to the recovery of Lake Winnipeg has and is being developed at the ELA.”

And why should Yukoners care about the Experimental Lakes Area? We should care because there are hundreds of pristine lakes and rivers in the Yukon that we would like to keep that way. Climate change is going to affect us more as northerners and knowledge is a powerful tool that we are going to need to mitigate its effects. And we should care because we love all of our country.

More than any other asset, our most valuable resource is knowledge.

I’ll save you the effort of pointing to the proposed Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, which will cost us $142.4 million to build. Too far south to do effective climate change research, CHARS will aid resource development in the North. Industrial research is not a bad thing, but it is not a substitute for long-term environmental science.

The cost of the scientific programs cut last year was so low that using the deficit as an excuse is not credible. There was $16 million spent just this year on the self-serving advertisements dedicated to telling us what a great job the Conservative Party was doing. This money would have covered the annual budgets of the ELA, the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island, the Natural Resources Canada program tasked with the long-term maintenance of ice cores from the Arctic (critical to understanding climate change), and the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, combined.

And there would have been $4.8 million left over.

Furthermore, we cannot just walk away from ELA. The cost of shutting it down is estimated at $50 million.

In 2007, the Conservative government began to muzzle Research Canada scientists. Principled public servants such as the parliamentary budget officer and the environment commissioner have been slandered and attacked for speaking truth to power. Institutions, such as Libraries and Archives Canada and the long-form census, which were mandated to provide Canadians and their governments with knowledge, have been crippled or terminated.

History tells us that the suppression of knowledge is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes.

Ryan, you sat on the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans last year. How is it possible that you could be a part of terminating an important research project like the ELA and not even know what it was?

How sad for our democracy that the work of parliamentary committees has become meaningless.

May you walk on the high road.

Linda Leon is a Whitehorse freelance writer.

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