KANANASKIS COUNTRY – A group of protesters gathered at a controversial bridge built by Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) in Kananaskis Country Saturday morning (Nov. 25) to continue their demand for an immediate pause in plans to clearcut more than 1,100 hectares in the Upper Highwood drainage.
The group, which included speakers from the Bow Bioregion Regeneration Network and Calgary Climate Hub, said extreme drought and water shortage conditions are expected to continue, necessitating a pause in logging due to its potential impact on the environment, wildlife habitat and recreation in the area.
Jenny Yeremiy of Calgary Climate Hub, who organized the demonstration, said the bridge has already gone too far and the forest management licence should’ve been revoked.
“This is risking the drinking water of 40 per cent of southern Alberta. We are currently looking at 51 regions in southern Alberta that are in Stage four drought, and we’re looking at stronger drought conditions going forward,” she said.
Yeremiy added the bridge was constructed inside the riverbed during spawning season for fish species along the Highwood River.
In addition to environmental, recreational and wildlife organizations such as Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s (CPAWS) southern Alberta chapter and Take a Stand for Kananaskis, the Town of Okotoks sent a letter stating its concern to the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas. The Town of High River also sent a letter to Todd Loewen, minister of forestry and parks, to stop the planned clearcut.
Yeremiy said they now have 13 groups signed on to a letter to Loewen asking for a larger moratorium on logging in southern Alberta.
“Healthy forests do three things with water – they slow it down, they spread it out, and they soak it up. When you cut down a forest, you’re disrupting all of those,” he said.
Members involved with the protest said the logging operation could begin as early as Dec. 1.
The area is home to threatened species under the Alberta Wildlife Act, including westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout and is a core grizzly bear habitat.
Devon Earl, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), said the bull trout’s range has already been dramatically reduced due to human activity.
“There’s no room left, really, to compromise on their remaining habitat,” she said.
The federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) began an investigation in August on SLS’ building a bridge to access logging areas in Kananaskis Country after the federal agency told the Outlook SLS had failed to obtain a permit to build the crossing, aware of the presence of threatened bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout in the Highwood River.
When activities and infrastructure building are planned that could damage critical habitat for a threatened species – federally listed and subject to protections and recovery strategies under the Species at Risk Act – a company must apply to the DFO for a permit.
Vice president of Woodlands with SLS, Ed Kulcsar, previously told the Outlook that “in general, DFO permits are only required if a project proponent is unable to protect fish and fish habitat while conducting their works.”
“What I can say is we follow all approval processes and implement all measures and best management practices to ensure the protection of fish and fish habitat on all our bridge installations,” he said in August.
The drainages of Alberta’s eastern slopes provide habitat for several native trout species, including bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout and Athabasca rainbow trout, all of which are listed as threatened under both provincial and federal legislation.
Bull trout were once abundant in at least 60 mountain and foothill watersheds in Alberta, with large fish reported downstream of the mountains and foothills in most major Alberta rivers, according to provincial data.
By 2014, however, just seven watersheds – all within national or provincial parks – supported healthy bull trout populations characterized by low-risk adult density.
Bull trout populations have disappeared from at least 20 watersheds, in addition to those that seasonally inhabited lower river reaches such as the Peace, Athabasca, North Saskatchewan, Red Deer, and Bow rivers.
The Highwood River is categorized as one of about 50 core habitat areas for bull trout in Alberta. Most of those are ranked as highly vulnerable to encroachment, according to a 2012 provincial conservation management plan for the species.
Roger Gagne, a Calgary resident and founder of Climate Plan Alberta, said Saturday the effects of clearcutting upstream watersheds contributed to how hard High River was hit by the 2013 flood.
“When the heavy rains came and the heavy snowmelt, where was that water going to go? It wasn’t soaking in because those forests had been logged,” he said.
Colin Smith of the Bow Bioregion Regeneration Network said meaningful consultations are needed with impacted communities and stakeholders, including the Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation community of Eden Valley, the towns of High River and Okotoks, recreational users and downstream water rights and allocation holders.
“This clearcut exposes Eden Valley to greater flood risk and infringes on their rights and traditional uses of the land,” Smith said, noting clearcut logging will have serious negative impacts on fish species’ habitat.
“The potential impact on drinking water and irrigation is extreme. Under current, severe drought conditions, the impact of the project may be so severe that Alberta might not be able to provide South Saskatchewan River Basin with their agreed-upon inter-provincial water allocation responsibilities.”
Take a Stand Kananaskis previously had a letter writing campaign that led to more than 1,800 emails being sent to the ministries of Forestry and Parks and Environment and Protected Areas, MLA’s and the Premier’s office last summer.
The letters called for the Cochrane-based SLS’ Forest Management Agreement with the province to be re-evaluated.
SLS has a renewable 20-year agreement for the partial management of forests in Kananaskis Country’s public lands.
The 1,700-page Forest Management Agreement was established in 2001 for Alberta’s southern east slopes. It spans 283,307 hectares from Sundre to K-Country, with the agreement in place until 2035.
The agreement outlines the management of timber on Alberta Crown land in the company’s permitted extraction area, which aims to harmonize social, economic and environmental needs.
Kulcsaw previously told the Outlook those factors were used to identify suitable harvest areas in their agreement’s area. It also established the guidelines to follow under the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan and other integrated resource management plans or sub-regional plans in the agreement’s area.
“On a broader strategic plan, there were a number of public participation opportunities. We had an advisory group, we held open houses, we provided online information, we’ve got a stakeholder public list of over 400 people or organizations that have expressed interest in our forestry plan over the years,” said Kulcsar.
“Certainly, through public participation, we have conversations with the different public groups out there and if people identify some specific concerns or opportunities, we are definitely looking at that.
“It is mixed-use, so we need to get along and we need to integrate our activities with the activities of others.”
Kananaskis Country, which is a mixed-use area, is comprised of an ecological reserve, provincial parks, provincial recreation areas, wildland provincial parks, public land use zones, and public and private lands, each coming with its own level of protection.
About 38 per cent of the region’s 420,000 hectares is unprotected and susceptible to resource extraction, such as logging and oil and gas operations, including this 1,100-hectare plot of public land in the Upper Highwood, nestled between Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park and Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park.
Just over half of SLS’ defined logging area of 334,246 hectares under its 2021 Forestry Management Plan (FMP) is classified as core grizzly bear habitat and an additional 37 per cent of the area is secondary grizzly habitat, according to the FMP.
The province introduced the Kananaskis Conservation Pass in 2021 to allow people to access Kananaskis Country. The purpose of the pass was to collect revenue for human use in the multiple provincial parks and public land use zones and protect conservation needs.
If the province were to put a temporary halt or stop SLS’s logging plans, the government could be held liable for financial damages with the company having planned and prepared steps in the logging process.
Smith said he would support the government using revenue from the Kananaskis Conservation Pass to cover any financial damages since he felt that was the intent of the annual fee.
An attempt to reach both the province and SLS on Saturday was unsuccessful. When they get back to Great West Media, the story will be updated.
– With files from Jessica Lee, Rocky Mountain Outlook
CORRECTION: The original version of the story stated the Town of High River had sent a letter to Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen, but it was a letter of support to the Calgary Climate Hub. Great West Media apologizes for the error.