Logging in the East Kootenay: We can do better

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Posted in:  Conservation

A lightning storm is looming on the horizon as I stare at a high alpine glacier, high over the forested hills of the Central Purcells. John Bergenske’s border collie, Pema, is usually holding a stick in her mouth waiting with wide eyes for someone to toss that magical piece of wood, but right now she’s cowering under alder as the storm’s first lightning strikes. With the drama of a thunderstorm rolling over the mountains, we’re lucky to be in such a beautiful place.

John and I are looking at proposed logging in the Central Purcells, not far from the Jumbo Valley. The bottom and the mid-elevations of this valley have been logged hard in the last 50 years, but the upper basins and steeper slopes are still mostly intact. The proposed block is in a small sub-alpine valley of old-growth Engelmann spruce and balsam fir: key habitat for grizzlies and a vital movement corridor for wildlife. For large mammals, like grizzlies and lynx, who have very large home ranges, this proposed block is right on their most likely path to move between two remote valleys and their glaciated headwaters. In the next few days we’ll share our concerns with the logging company in hopes of preserving this key sub-alpine valley for wildlife.

Pushing for better logging

Wildsight works actively with all of the large forestry companies in the East Kootenay. During the planning process, we push to minimize environmental impacts, preserve biodiversity and protect critical habitat and movement corridors for wildlife. On the ground, we make sure logging takes place with as little impact as possible, especially expanding riparian buffers around creeks, preserving wildlife connectivity and protecting wildlife tree patches. Wildsight works in priority conservation areas like the Flathead, the Southern Rockies, and the Central Purcells to protect our wildlife, clean water and wilderness.

We meet regularly with foresters, biologists and executives as well as operators on the ground from companies such as Canfor, Galloway and Canwel. We use our leverage from Canfor’s Forest Stewardship Council commitments, especially for designated High Conservation Value Forests, to push for better forestry.

And we take the lessons we learn in planning and on the ground into meetings with government and industry leaders to help shape regional and provincial forest policy.

But we can only do so much. While some forestry standards in the East Kootenay have improved, at least on crown land, our wildlife populations, wilderness and ecosystems are still under constant threat. We’re still a long way from truly sustainable forestry.

The annual allowable cut is still unsustainable. It must be lowered. Remaining intact and untouched valleys must be left wild. On the provincial level, we need stronger forest policy and standards that our ecosystems, our wildlife and our mills can handle in the long term.

The trouble with professional reliance

In recent years, important forestry practices and forest management decisions have been made by forestry companies, instead of by government. Under this professional reliance model, registered professional foresters prepare logging and road plans based on their professional judgement. There is no requirement for plans to be submitted to government and there is little follow-up on planning, monitoring during logging or enforcement once harvesting has taken place. There isn’t even a legal obligation for a forest professional to be on site during harvesting. Essentially, it is up to the forestry companies to police themselves on regulatory objectives like water quality, biodiversity, and preservation of wildlife habitat.

Over the years, we’ve had real success protecting ecological values by working with local company foresters, who share our desire to maintain healthy ecosystems. Still, local foresters are company employees, constrained by the economic bottom-line.

We think forestry policy should be set by the BC Government, on behalf of all of the people of BC, with a primary focus on ecosystem integrity. Government foresters and habitat biologists need to be able to provide meaningful input to logging and road plans and to follow up to make sure plans are being followed. We’d much rather rely on impartial government professionals than industry.

It’s unlikely that a government forester or habitat biologist would sign off on the proposed block we’re looking at today because of the impact on wildlife, but under the professional reliance model, it’s just fine as long as any registered professional forester signs off on the logging plans.

Since the adoption of professional reliance and the Forest and Range Practices Act, many significant decisions have been made entirely outside government. We need increased government oversight of forestry and sufficient ministry staffing and resources to work effectively in the planning process and in the field.

We have a long way to go until we have sustainable forest industry in BC, but it is possible. If we focus on keeping our ecosystems functional across the landscape, instead of managing to maximize stumpage revenue, our forests and the wildlife they support would be in much better shape. It will take a lot more work and cooperation between forestry companies, government ministries, the public and organizations such as Wildsight.

 

As we head back down the valley once the storm has passed, the rain-wet road providing a respite from the constant summer dust, I’m hopeful that the old growth Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir we looked at today will still be standing next time I’m here.