07/18/2012 03:30 EDT | Updated 09/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Experimental Lakes Petition: Science Cuts In 2012 Canada Budget Opposed In Petition


EDMONTON - More than 2,900 people from around the world have signed an online petition aimed at saving a unique open-air freshwater laboratory from federal government budget cuts.

About one-third of those signing the document come from outside Canada, Heidi Swanson, a biologist helping organize the effort to save the Experimental Lakes Area, said Wednesday.

The petition has been signed by both scientists and non-scientists alike, she said.

"There was a mixture of scientists, but a lot of people were just cottagers, people that are generally concerned about the environment, including other cuts to science and environmental regulation."

The experimental area, which includes 58 remote Ontario lakes and an on-site laboratory, has yielded crucial long-term data on concerns such as acid rain and fertilizer contamination. Scientists say it continues to be a base for research relevant to questions on the cumulative impacts of oilsands development, how ecosystems process toxins such as mercury, the effects of hydro development and climate change.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Tory government has ordered it closed next March for a saving of $2 million.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said he hopes another operator can be found for the program, such as a university or group of universities.

"I hope the Experimental Lakes program doesn't close down," he said. "Environment Canada has found the Experimental Lakes over the past couple of decades extremely valuable."

Scientists have said universities are unlikely to be able to afford the kind of long-term commitment required.

The area is less relevant to the government's current concerns, such as environmental monitoring of the oilsands — although that work is expected to be funded by industry, Kent said.

The latest petition, which can't be presented to Parliament because the signatures were collected online, follows several other protests.

In June, eight top Canadian and international researchers released an open letter to Harper asking him to reverse the cut. And earlier this month, scientists held a demonstration outside Parliament Hill to protest what they called the "Death of Evidence" — a reference to Harper government decisions to cut funding to a variety of research initiatives.

They include the PEARL atmospheric lab on Ellesmere Island and scientific programs at the National Research Council, Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The government has said it intends to focus research dollars where they can generate more immediate economic payoffs.

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