In addition to the environmental and aesthetic opposition, and the mayors of now three communities writing letters to the provincial government asking for a moratorium on clearcutting in Kananaskis, a third group has added a new perspective in the fight to have Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) reconsider their plans this winter.
They’re speaking up on behalf of the fish, and getting some answers from federal and provincial officials.
One avid flyfisher in particular has been more successful than the media and the interested NGOs in squeezing information out of the feds and the province.
Glenn Anderson fishes the Highwood River often. He has just returned from his first experience in saltwater flyfishing in Cuba, where he proudly claims he caught 24 bonefish, which are “four times faster than a rainbow.”
Waiting for him in his email inbox when he got home to Calgary were some responses from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to his persistent inquiries into what, if any, rules were broken by SLS when they built a bridge over the Highwood River this summer.
A number of groups, including the Bow River Trout Foundation, claim SLS should have secured permission from DFO before building the bridge, since it is located in the habitat of the bull trout, a species at risk according to DFO.
SLS maintains they broke no rules and were not required by any legislation to get pre-approvals.
An investigation into SLS’s actions was launched by the DFO, but to date, they have not explained why they did so. That investigation is ongoing.
Anderson received an email from the regional director of DFO on behalf of the minister, saying, “DFO reviews proposed works, undertakings, or activities under the Fisheries Act that are likely to result in the death of fish or the harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat. DFO also reviews projects for activities that may affect aquatic species at risk, in accordance with the Species At Risk Act.
“As you indicated in your correspondence, DFO has not issued a Fisheries Act Authorization or Species at Risk Act permit for works in the area you describe. The Department is aware of the situation and has referred the file to our Conservation and Protection Branch,” the response said.
As of press time, The Eagle has not received an update on the investigation from that branch of the DFO.
Anderson also had an email from Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors describing what approvals SLS would need to haul timber on Highway 40 this winter.
“Prior to granting approval, the department will do its due diligence by requesting feedback and recommendations from other government departments involved. Specifically, Transportation and Economic Corridors will consult with Public Lands, Wildlife Heath and Licensing, Fish and Wildlife, Forestry and Environmental Enforcement officials from Forestry and Parks. A permit to SLS to haul over the section of Highway 40 over any timeframes and within the seasonal closure period will only be issued if and when all of the applicable departments have provided their approvals,” it stated.
The Bow River Trout Foundation is contributing funding to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association (CPAWS) to do a DNA study for Loomis Creek (which flows into the Highwood River) aimed at providing scientific confirmation that there are bull trout in the watershed.
Anderson doesn’t have to wait to know that. He catches them.
He said Loomis Creek (right in the proposed clear cut area) is just as important to the trout as the Highwood River.
“Based on my experience they would be spawning in this stream,” he said.
The eggs and small fry would reside in the creeks until they reach a certain size and then make their way into the river. Disturbance to the eggs (silt) and small minnows would impact the future generations of Bull trout.
So for Anderson, even if SLS is deemed to have done an adequate job of building the bridge across the Highwood, he still has concerns.
“But what are they (West Fraser Timber Co. which now owns SLS) going to do to protect Bull trout in the creeks in the logging area?”
The Eagle joined Anderson on a recent trip to the bridge on the Highwood, where a team of employees from a private environmental company from Calgary were onsite, doing “environmental testing.”
Anderson said he would consider it a win if SLS agreed to alter their cut plans.
More voices joining call to stop the clearcut
Village of Cowley mayor Barbara Burnett has added her voice to those of her counterparts in Okotoks and High River via a letter to Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz, asking for the province to declare a moratorium on logging in Kananaskis to protect the watershed.
Letter writing campaigns from various groups are split between Schulz’s office and Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen.
Loewen’s office responded to The Eagle via email this week.
“We appreciate the Mayor’s questions,” the response read, “and we admire their commitment to serving their constituents. Alberta's government remains committed to working alongside Albertans and forest companies to achieve a balance of economic, environmental, recreational, social and cultural outcomes. . . (Our) province is home to world class sustainable forest management frameworks, and forest management plans are developed using an integrated planning approach that incorporates watershed function, aesthetics, fisheries, wildlife, pest risk and damage, wildfire risk, and recreation.”
Colin Smith of the Land Lovers Network, who helped organize a protest at the bridge a few weeks back, has taken to driving out to Kananaskis once a week, parking at the gate on Highway 40 and riding his bike the rest of the way into Highwood Pass to check to make sure SLS hasn’t started hauling in equipment to start clearcutting.
So far, so good, he said.
Along with others, he’s cautiously optimistic that opposition to the Highwood logging is having an effect on delaying West Fraser Timber’s activities.
“We’re growing momentum on the ground, raising our voices against this,” he said.
They have a meeting with a couple of Calgary city councillors this week, to try to solicit their support in lobbying the provincial government to stop the clearcut.
Jason Villeneuve from the Bow River Trout Foundation has also fished the Highwood.
“Logging rules in Alberta are pretty antiquated – companies have a lot of sway,” he said.
“The rules they created 60 years ago are probably not sound, scientifically.”
CPAWS also sponsored a Zoom presentation on Dec. 14, featuring UBC professor Dr. Younes Alila, a specialist in forest hydrology, who showed research confirming the negative effect clearcutting has on forest watersheds, and the long-overdue need for forestry legislation to catch up with science.
Alila closed with a dire warning to governments who ignore the call for improved forest management practices.
He said they are risking taxpayers’ money, which will be needed to pay for costly lawsuits, which he claimed would be inevitable as the improving science continues to make the case.
“Time is running out on us,” Alila said.
He added the rest of the world – Europe and Asia in general, and China in particular – has long recognized how clearcutting in upstream watersheds exacerbates both the frequency and intensity of flooding, but here in western Canada and the US, not so much.
“While here we’re logging like there’s no tomorrow,” he said.
China has instituted a complete ban on logging in watersheds.
Josh Killeen, Conservation Science & Programs Manager at CPAWS also presented at the Zoom talk, and in an interview with The Eagle the next day, pointed to how the cards are stacked against anyone trying to get science-based information out of the company or the provincial government.
He said timber supply is priority in the legislation, with ecological considerations a distant second.
And “sustainable” has always meant sustainable timber supply, according to the Alberta Forests Act.
Anyone opposed to the clearcutting needs to make their voices heard, Killeen said.
The Forests Act needs to change to prioritize ecological sustainability, with timber supply as secondary.
Bull trout DNA study could be key factor going forward
CPAWS has hired an independent biological consultant to do a DNA study in the Highwood River and Loomis Creek, looking to help determine the importance of the area to the at-risk Bull trout.
It’s another example of how the current system is slanted, says CPAWS.
Killeen explained the DFO leaves it up to the logging companies to provide details like whether the Bull trout are actually present and breeding in the area.
“We would prefer to have that done independently,” he said.
They expect the results some time in 2024.
Killeen outlined how frustrating it is for NGOs and members of the public to get any answers based on science.
He urged those listening in on the Zoom call to get involved politically and write their MLAs.
CPAWS reached out to West Fraser on Dec.7, inviting them to meet to discuss their concerns.
He said having them come to Cochrane for a town hall-type meeting would be a good first step as well.
“We think it’s important for West Fraser to engage as soon as possible,” Killeen said.
In the meantime, Killeen sounded cautiously optimistic that the public’s involvement is having the intended effect.
“It could be that West Fraser has taken a pause, given the outcry – I’m hopeful that might be the case,” he said.
The Eagle also reached out to West Fraser Timber for an update on logging plans last week.
Communications director Joyce Wagenaar sent the following late Friday:
“West Fraser does not have equipment in the Highwood area. We have begun to set up meetings with stakeholder groups to better understand perspectives, interests and issues pertaining to these important forest lands.”