Labrador, 'wild land' of Newfoundland, is ripe for development

Wanted: occupants for a large slab of Canadian wilderness. Rich in minerals. Good water supplies. Laced with picturesque granite headlands. Great moose hunting. No noisy neighbors.

Such ads might not be showing up among your local real estate want ads, but slightly different versions are being quietly sketched at more business luncheons around the world.

The subject: Labrador. The speaker: the government of Newfoundland. Provincial leaders here are making a more concerted effort to open up this resource-rich portion of the Canadian Shield high on Canada's eastern edge.

After years of backstage roles, Labrador is emerging to play a more central part in Newfoundland's plans to buttress its economy. Yet formidable barriers remain before many industrial concerns take up residence.

''We are putting a great deal of emphasis on Labrador because we see it as a valuable resource,'' says Neil Windsor, Newfoundland's minister of development. ''There is huge potential up there.''

Rugged and remote, Labrador forms the mainland portion of the province of Newfoundland. It spans an area almost twice the size of New England, but is thinly settled with 40,000 people. It has no paved roads except in its few isolated towns. Unlike the island of Newfoundland, which has a climate tempered by the warm Gulf Stream current, Labrador can be grimly cold in winter. Temperatures of 40 degrees below zero are not uncommon.

One noted Canadian historian has described Labrador as a ''wild land, ruthless and bare and strong, that seems to have risen overnight from chaos, dripping wet. . . . It is indeed very much as the Great Ice Era left it thousands and thousands of years ago.'' No doubt Labrador was what former Premier ''Joey'' Smallwood partly had in mind when he used to refer to Newfoundland as this ''poor bald rock.''

Yet, on the surface at least, the area would seem ripe for development. It is topped with a carpet of dense-fibered black spruce and balsam fir - ideal for making newsprint. Beneath its rocky exterior lies half of Canada's iron ore reserves, as well as deposits of lead, tin, zinc, and uranium. Plenty of renewable energy is bound up in the lower Churchill River, which government officials are now eyeing for electrical generation at two sites.

What's more, federal and provincial officials are trying to knock down one of the biggest obstacles to development - transportation. Over the past two years, icebreakers and a reinforced bulk cargo carrier have been sent into Lake Melville in the winter.

This waterway, which slices into Labrador's midsection and links the town of Goose Bay (a former military base) with the coast, traditionally freezes six months out of the year, hampering any prospects for year-round trade. Although the icebreaking trial runs will continue this winter, provincial officials believe the jury is already in.

''We have been able to prove that you can ship in there 11 to 12 months of the year,'' Mr. Windsor says. ''That puts a whole new complexion on developing Labrador.''

So far the capital-short government has at least one nibble from outside interests: Anaconda, the giant American mining company, and the province are carrying out a $500,000 study on the feasibility of siting an aluminum smelter in Newfoundland.

''What you're looking at is a highly mineralized, large chunk of territory with a lot of fresh water and energy,'' says Angus Bruneau, a former dean of engineering at Memorial University and now head of a consulting firm.

Still, obstacles remain. Any developments in Labrador will hinge partly on the availability of power. The two sites on the lower Churchill River could deliver 2,300 megawatts of power (about the equivalent of two average-size nuclear plants). Newfoundland wants to wheel a good portion of this through neighboring Quebec's grid and on to markets in New England. But Quebec has said it wants a package settlement of all power disputes, including a squabble over the low price paid by Quebec Hydro for power from the Upper Churchill Falls development under an earlier contract.

Another snag: Besides the obvious high costs of developing such a harsh landscape, companies face the difficulty of attracting workers. An official of an iron ore company here recalls that back in the developing stages of their operation at Wabush the turnover rate among employees was 70 percent.

''Because it is perceived to be a remote wilderness, it is a difficult psychological step for a lot of people to take,'' Mr. Bruneau says.

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