03/22/2012 11:48 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Military downgrades plans for Arctic naval facility on Baffin Island

Canada's military has quietly downgraded plans for an Arctic naval facility the government has pointed to as a symbol of how seriously it takes northern issues.

"The intent of the (northern naval facility) will remain ... but its functionality will be reduced," says a late February letter. It was sent from the government to the northern environmental regulator overseeing the Nanisivik project on northern Baffin Island at the eastern gate of the Northwest Passage.

Original plans for permanent buildings including workshops, accommodations and offices have all been scrapped along with plans for waste treatment facilities. The only new building on site is to be a large, unheated warehouse.

Concerns about shoreline and permafrost stability have set back for years plans to upgrade the existing wharf, originally built in the late 1970s to service the now-closed Nanisivik lead-zinc mine.

Proposals to store two season's worth of fuel have been scaled to a single season, halving the size of the projected tank farm. Permanent communications equipment won't be installed.

The facility will only operate in the summer and will be shut down in the winter.

Those visiting it will stay in trailers now on site. Nanisivik will now depend on the nearby Nunavut community of Arctic Bay for services.

The letter, from project manager Rodney Watson, suggests the changes are new.

"A detailed design is not yet available, as these changes have just recently been determined," he wrote.

Officials from the Defence Department were not immediately available to comment.

"It becomes, basically, a gas station," said Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.

"What we're doing is taking away from the ability of having people up there."

It isn't clear how much money would be save. At least $1.4 billion is expected to be carved out of spending at National Defence in the coming fiscal year.

The initial budget for the project was $100 million, but Watson told northern media last year that had grown to $175 million.

It's only the latest setback for the proposed facility, which Harper announced in 2007.

"Today's announcement tells the world that Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic," Harper said at the time. "Use it or lose it."

Nanisivik was supposed to give the navy more speed and flexibility to deal with expected increases to shipping through the Northwest Passage. The existence of a working jetty at the old mine site was supposed to speed its construction enough that it would have opened this summer.

But that was delayed for years through a combination of funding shortfalls and environmental concerns. The most recent projected opening date was 2016.

"It does come as a disappointment, because this government has always been maintaining it's not going to be like the other governments that have always promised the Earth and the moon, and then cut back after two or three years after the crisis is perceived to have gone," Huebert said.

"That is ongoing tradition of how we've approached Arctic sovereignty and security issues — a lot of talk, good organization, great plans, and then the follow-through gets reduced or cancelled on the basis of fiscal responsibility."

Similar delays and cutbacks have affected other components of the Harper government's northern strategy.

Ships to patrol the offshore Arctic — themselves a downgrade from original plans — won't be operational until 2016, two years late because of the length of time it took to develop a national shipbuilding strategy.

A research station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, also promised in 2007, won't be ready until 2017. A major high-altitude research facility was recently shuttered on Ellesmere Island.

Other nations have noticed.

A 2010 cable from U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson released by Wikileaks said: "Conservatives have made concern for 'The North' a part of their political brand ... and it works."

The cable went on to suggest that "the PM's public stance on the Arctic may not reflect his private, perhaps more pragmatic priorities."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly identified the project manager as Rodney Strong.