Cattle producers worry that a new agreement affecting crown land will damage the rivers that flow through their land
Ranchers already fighting potential open-pit coal mines in the Eastern Slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains are now viewing a new forest management agreement with alarm.
They fear such deals will result in the clear cutting of timber, harming the headwaters of rivers relied on by everyone from farmers to communities across much of Western Canada, said Bobbi Lambright, secretary and director of the Livingstone Landowners Group.
Many cattle operations in the Eastern Slopes are run by fourth- and even sixth-generation ranchers who see themselves as stewards of the land, she said.
“That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever do anything else on the land, but that whatever we do with the land recognizes its unique properties,” she added.
“It’s important to sustaining life and to sustaining access to food and water, and these people who have run the land for generations, they take good care of the land because they look beyond today to say, ‘I want this to be here and to be viable, not just for me, but for my children and for my children’s children’.”
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen recently announced the provincial government is entering into a new 20-year forest management agreement with Crowsnest Forest Products Ltd., which is a subsidiary of Spray Lake Sawmills.
The deal involves privatizing the management of about 867,587 acres of public crown land in Forest Management Unit C5 west of Lethbridge, placing it near the headwaters of the Oldman River system. Lambright said the Eastern Slopes are unlike anywhere else she has lived.
“It houses the very last of our native grasslands — the fescue grasslands. It is an absolutely spectacularly beautiful area that also supplies pretty much all of the water for southern Alberta… it also provides the water going into the prairie provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba.”
However, forest management agreements do not simply give companies the right to harvest timber on public land, said a provincial statement. They also establish legal obligations that hold such firms responsible for forest management planning and commits them to increased environmental stewardship, including water conservation, as well as Indigenous consultation, it added.
“Alberta’s foresters are the best in the world and help protect our 87 million acres of forests,” Dreeshen said in the statement. “Foresters develop 200-year forest plans, replant two trees for every one they harvest, reduce wildfire risk, combat tree pest and disease, and create good-paying jobs with long-term investments in our province.”
During its lifetime, the agreement will provide “jobs for hundreds of hard working Albertans,” along with $32 million in increased payments, such as timber dues to the province, said the statement. As a result, the deal will boost the province’s gross domestic product by $225 million, it added.
The agreement “does not increase the amount of wood the company can harvest,” it said. “However, it does provide them with secure and sustainable fibre access for the next 20 years.”
Despite such reassurances, Lambright said ranchers fear timber harvesting will affect terrain that has always been subject to dramatic changes in precipitation ranging from drought to floods. She said forests help soften such extremes, stabilizing mountain slopes and protecting water quality and flow at a time when climate change is making things worse for the region.
Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage last year rescinded a coal policy for Alberta dating back to 1976, opening up much of the Eastern Slopes to potential open-pit coal mining. Due to widespread opposition, the policy was reinstated Feb. 8 and an independent committee is gathering public input for a new coal policy for Alberta.
However, the focus on open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes is too narrow for conservation specialist Devon Earl of the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA).
“I think we need to be considering the cumulative effects of all industry and all recreation impacts and everything else that’s going on in the landscape because these things are all acting together to affect the environment.”
The provincial government announced last year it would increase the annual allowable cut of forests by 13 percent, hinting it could also boost the cut by as much as 33 percent, said an AWA statement. Such increases could result in more timber being harvested in areas that are ecologically sensitive or difficult to recover, such as steep slopes or riparian areas near rivers or streams, it said.
Similar to the rescinding of the 1976 coal policy, the provincial government didn’t consult with the Livingstone Landowners Group before proceeding with the forest management agreement, said Lambright.
“We are feeling that there are a lot of decisions being made that are really not reflective of what many of us in the rural community want.”