November 9, 2001

California scientist flogs Mars project once again

A Mars theme park on Devon Island?


MONTREAL — Many Americans, wary of air travel after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, would probably be hesitant about travelling from southern California all the way to Grise Fiord.

But an aspiring interplanetary traveller would find this journey much easier and safer than a jaunt to Mars.

But if such a trip might boost his scientific ambitions at the same time, it could be well worth the trouble.

Last week Dr. Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist working at SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Institute, and at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, returned to Nunavut on a mission: to promote NASA’s research project near Devon Island’s Haughton crater.

Lee stopped over in Iqaluit while en route to Grise Fiord, where he hoped to rally interest and support for his research.

Lee, the driving force behind the Haughton-Mars Project, considers Devon Island to be an ideal test site for Mars exploration — not because it looks like a stage setting for a Mars movie — but because it resembles the fourth planet at its warmest.

During his brief stay in Grise Fiord, Lee curried favour with the residents of Nunavut’s most northerly community.

Under the Nunavut land claim agreement, Inuit have the right to control activities on land selected and every research project has to have their approval.

But so far Lee hasn’t received their consent.

The community of Grise Fiord has repeatedly refused Lee and his fellow researchers to have any access to Inuit-owned lands in and around the Haughton Crater.

Inuit-owned lands comprise about the 70 per cent of land in and around the crater, which was created by a monster meteor collision millions of years ago.

For the past three years, an increasing number of scientists, engineers and media have gone to Devon Island, creating unease among residents about the impact of visitors and vehicles on wildlife in the area.

Lee’s recent visit, however, may have improved his relations with people in Grise Fiord.

During his brief stay Lee attended the community’s Halloween party at Ummimak School. He also spoke to junior and senior students, impressing them with his descriptions of the huge distance between Mars and Earth and the prospect of summer jobs at the nearby project site.

"It motivated the students to look at life outside the school," said principal Dennis Boggle.

Lee was also the featured guest at a public meeting where he spoke about the Haughton-Mars project and his plans for the future.

The community’s leaders had been lobbying for an Inuit impact and benefits agreement before approving any access to Inuit-owned land in the crater.

An IIBA would theoretically give the residents of Grise Fiord permanent involvement in the Haughton-Mars project, said Marty Kuluguqtuk, the assistant senior administrative officer of Grise Fiord.

Kuluguqtuk now says an IIBA won’t be necessary and a "gentleman’s agreement" may be enough.

The land claim wouldn’t necessarily require an IIBA for a research project to go ahead. That’s because a research project — even a well-funded one like the Haughton-Mars project — isn’t supposed to be a commercial activity like a mine or a recreational park.

But, in the past, Lee has also tossed around the idea of Devon Island becoming home to a moneymaking and job-creating "Mars Theme Park" — an idea that could have some appeal to a High Arctic community with little economic activity and a sky-high cost of living.

Larry Audlaluk, the community’s representative to the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, said people in Grise Fiord aren’t necessarily against the project, but they want to take their time and see what direction the land claim provides.

Adulaluk said he’s felt slighted by the researchers’ lack of interest in tiny Grise Fiord and the large control its residents have over projects on their land.

"We’re not against the project. It’s just the attitude of the organizers initially that they really made us feel insulted in many ways," Audlaluk said.

When reached by telephone in California, an audibly hostile Lee, refused a request for an interview because he feels the coverage given to his project by Nunatsiaq News in the past has been "inaccurate."

(See articles in Nov. 1999, July 2000, and Sept., 2001. The Nunatsiaq News visited Devon Island and the Haughton-Mars project in the summer of 2000.)