Why is Canwel logging endangered whitebark pine in the Elk Valley?

Conditions for life are tough high on the alpine ridges and in the subalpine valleys of the Rocky Mountains, with bitter winter cold, dry summers, and strong winds all year. A few hardy species, adapted to the difficult conditions, are connected together in a delicate mountain ecosystem. One slow-growing tree, the whitebark pine, is a keystone of our high Rocky Mountain ecosystems, growing in harsh conditions, while its cones provide high-energy food for all kinds of creatures, from the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that specializes in pine nuts, to the grizzly bear.

But the whitebark pine is in trouble. White pine blister rust kills 3% of whitebark pines every year. High in the Rockies, climate change is moving quickly, much faster than a slow-growing tree can move. Because of these threats, whitebark pine is federally protected as an endangered species in Canada. Just last year, Lake Louise Ski Resort was fined $2.1 million for cutting 38 endangered whitebark pine in Banff National Park.

But outside our National Parks, beyond federal jurisdiction, whitebark pine has little protection as BC still doesn’t have an endangered species act. And on private land, even under the Private Managed Forest Land Act, which gives big landowners big tax breaks for meeting very minimal environmental standards, whitebark pine has no protection at all.

Over the past year and a half, more than 35 logging trucks of endangered whitebark pine has been hauled off of Private Managed Forest in the Elk Valley by Canwel, according to BC’s Harvest Billing System. Canwel is a logging company that is no stranger to controversy for its big clearcuts and liquidation logging all around the Elk Valley. Over that time, 70% of the whitebark pine cut in the province has been cut by Canwel. 

No one should be cutting endangered whitebark pine, but it’s crazy that we’re letting one logging company, in one small corner of the province, cut so much of it—with no consequences at all.

Recent logging in a subalpine valley of Upper Coal Creek included many whitebark pines.

Just south of Fernie, Wildsight was recently out on the ground surveying a clearcut in a subalpine valley in upper Coal Creek. What we saw was depressing: a lot of whitebark pine had been cut. Even centuries-old trees hadn’t been spared. Canwel, managing its logging operations in the East Kootenay without the oversight of a a registered professional forester, knew there were lots of whitebark pines in the planned clearcut—because Wildsight warned them about it when we first learned about their logging plans.

How can a logging company cut down so much of a tree that is in so much danger that it has the highest level of protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act? There’s no law telling them not to and no government or professional review of their logging plans. Canwel, a company who own 1/8th of the Elk Valley, can cut as much endangered whitebark pine as they like.

Earlier this year, we wrote about BC’s weak rules for logging in Private Managed Forests, rules that leave our environment and our communities at risk. A total lack of protection for endangered species like whitebark pine is just another reason BC needs to fix the broken Private Managed Forest system. With Canwel turning the Elk Valley into a patchwork of clearcuts, putting wildlife at risk, damaging streams and wetlands and now cutting endangered trees by the truck load, the province needs to act now to protect the Elk Valley and other areas where private land logging is a threat.

But the problem for whitebark pine isn’t just logging on private land. 

As the Narwhal reported earlier this year, BC’s logging companies cutting on crown land have been taking down whitebark pine too. British Columbia urgently needs an endangered species act of our own, that applies across the province. The BC Endangered Species Act was an election promise from the NDP—but two years after the election, we still don’t have one. There’s no question that endangered species legislation is a key piece of the puzzle in confronting the worldwide biodiversity crisis.

If a logging company can cut down 35 logging trucks of an endangered tree in 18 months and no one can do anything about it, something is very wrong. Our BC government needs to act right now to put a stop to the disastrous liquidation logging happening in the Elk Valley—and to make sure no more endangered whitebark pine or other endangered species are left without legal protection.

The distinctive five-needle bunches of whitebark pine differentiate it (and limber pine) from other types.

Read more about whitebark pine and its close relative the limber pine.