Photos released Monday by the Wildlands League are proof that mining activity is causing permanent damage in a fragile ecosystem in northern Ontario, according to the environmental group.

The pictures of a snowy boreal forest patterned with grid lines and pockmarked by drill rig indentations were taken during a March flight across the mineral-rich area, known as the Ring of Fire, in the James Bay lowlands. 

The images challenge the idea that early mining exploration is benign, said Wildlands League director of conservation planning, Anna Baggio.

Ring of Fire drill rig indentations and line cutting

The Wildlands League says this photo shows a 'disturbed and disrupted' landscape. in the Ring of Fire. The circular marks show where drilling rigs have left an imprint and the cut lines are part of early mining exploration work that removes vegetation to create a grid for locating mineral finds. (Submitted by Wildlands League)

"I don't think people fully grasp how much activity has happened just at the exploration stage and what is being done to the land here," Baggio said. "If all the claims were to be developed at a similar level of intensity, it would modify the entire landscape."

Nearly two dozen companies hold claims, spending more than $278 million on exploration in an area that has yielded "significant discoveries" of chromite, nickel and copper-zinc, according to the province's Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.

The Wildlands League is calling on Ontario to conduct a comprehensive regional environmental assessment for the 500,000 hectare Ring of Fire, that would consider the impact of early exploration as well as all the planned mines.

Caribou, wolverine 'driven away'

Anna Baggio

Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for the Wildlands League, flew over the Ring of Fire in March. (submitted by Anna Baggio)

"They've permanently changed the landscape, they've permanently changed the hydrology, we're afraid wildlife are going to be permanently driven away," Baggio said, adding that caribou and wolverine are particularly vulnerable to a "disrupted and disturbed" landscape.

Currently, Ontario has little environmental oversight of exploration work. A nickel mine planned by Noront Resources is the only project that has made it as far as the provincial environmental assessment process. 

Glen Murray, Ontario's Minister of Environment and Climate Change, addressed the call for a regional look at the overall mining impacts in a letter notifying affected First Nations that he had approved the plan for an environmental assessment of Noront's project.

"In terms of your community's concern for cumulative effects in relation to the broader regional context, I am of the view that this is something more appropriately considered as part of ongoing initiatives," Murray wrote on June 18.

Long-term environmental monitoring, cumulative effects and land use planning are being negotiated as part of an agreement between the province and the nine First Nations closest to the mining area, a ministry spokesperson said.

A current review of Ontario's Mineral Development Strategy is a perfect opportunity to incorporate environmental oversight of early exploration, according to Baggio. Without it, the province risks irreparable harm in highly sensitive areas, she said.

"The footprint was so big, just from early exploration, and that really concerned us, it was shocking," Baggio said of what they saw in the Ring of Fire. "We're not seeing a lot of potential for restoration, so these are looking more and more like permanent impacts to us."