Experimental Lakes Area uncertain future met with mixed reaction

While the mayor of Kenora is optimistic about the future of the Experimental Lakes Area, others are expressing dismay at the federal government's decision to temporarily close the unique outdoor laboratory while they search for a group to take it over.

Negotiations with groups interested in taking over ELA under way, Conservative MP says

A lake, part of the 8th year of the wetland reservoir (Experimental Lakes Area Reservoir Project, ELARP), is shown in this undated handout photo. Scientific projects could die on the vine because of cuts to the federal Fisheries Department, university researchers say. (Hand-out/Experimental Lakes Area/The Canadian Press)

Activists and community leaders near the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in northwestern Ontario are expressing dismay at the government's decision to temporarily close the unique outdoor laboratory while they search for a group to take it over.

"I get a queasy feeling in my stomach when they shutter something because of course we went through that with the paper mill here that I spent 32 years working at," Mayor Dave Canfield of Kenora, Ont., told CBC News.

"Once you have a temporary shut down the start-up sometimes becomes a little more difficult," he added. Canfield hoped that a deal could be reached before March 31 when funding for the research facility ends.

The ELA is an area of 58 small lakes in northwestern Ontario where the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been conducting experiments on whole bodies of water since 1968. It costs about $2 million a year to run the projects.

The federal government will maintain control of ELA until Sept. 1 but will not pay for any research to be done after March.

Canfield knows the federal government is in negotiations with groups that are interested in taking over ELA. That, he said, makes him optimistic about the facility’s future.

Not everyone, however, shares the mayor’s optimism.

"It’s devastating," argued Britt Hall, director of Save ELA and a biogeochemistry professor at the University of Regina. Hall worries about the 44 years of continuous data that will be interrupted and experiments in mid-stream that will have to be cancelled.

"[The interruption in funding] is not surprising because I’ve had doubts about whether the government is actually committed to transferring the ELA," Hall said.

She thinks the government wants to shut down the ELA because its research is "inconvenient." She said all indications are the Conservative government doesn’t support environmental science.

"If they [Conservative government] really were keen on maintaining the scientific integrity of the ELA they could absolutely keep it open over the course of the field season," added Hall.

Greg Rickford, the Conservative MP for Kenora, says that misses the point.

Rickford argues that the research dollars that kept ELA open are needed elsewhere in the country. He pointed to western Canada where the level of industrial development in places like Alberta’s oil sands is so intense that studies of local ecosystems are urgently needed.

Still, supporters of the ELA shouldn’t worry, he said.

"We have assurances that negotiations are moving along as they should be and we hope they will be fruitful," Rickford said.