Our Land Use Choices Affect Watershed Health
by Ann Sullivan
In late April 2018, a load of silt from Forestry Road 1852A slid into a reach of Silvester Creek, a tributary of the Elbow River. The incident might have gone unreported if hikers in the area hadn’t noticed unusually cloudy water and followed the sedimentation to its source. Their action led to a report to the Alberta Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and a formal complaint with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Federal and provincial governments are still investigating the incident, but the damaged creek crossing, where the silt originated, has been repaired. When asked about the siltation incident, Ed Kulcsar, Vice President, Woodlands, at Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS), said in an email that the report was “inaccurate.” He added that “seasonal maintenance is performed to ensure all erosion control measures are functioning when conditions permit.” Cochrane-based SLS holds the Forest Management Agreement (FMA) for all Kananaskis Country forested areas—outside of protected areas and parks—in the Elbow River watershed. Its FMA was renewed in 2015.
The Government of Alberta confirmed that “the particular case in question is under an active investigation by both provincial forestry and federal authorities” and could not comment further.
The health of all creeks in the Elbow River watershed is crucial to our freshwater supply, but Silvester Creek is of special importance: It has been designated as critical habitat for Westslope Cutthroat Trout, a threatened species that some argue should be classified as “endangered.” (Click to read our article on this). Westslope Cutthroat Trout need clean, cool water and a pebbly bottom in which to lay their eggs. Extra sediment turns the water cloudy and the creek bottom into something more like concrete than loose pebbles. Conservationists see the muddying of Silvester Creek—a relatively small but vital piece of the Elbow River watershed—as evidence that land use of any kind can have an impact on the environment. The province acknowledges this and says its forestry division is working with other government programs to manage land use and fisheries issues in the Elbow watershed in general and the Silvester Creek area in particular.
Where forestry is concerned, Katie Morrison, Conservation Director for the Southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), would like to see a new approach, one that she says better protects the watershed. Morrison favours an “ecosystem-based forest management approach” that prioritizes the value of entire ecosystems over the value of timber alone.
This ecosystem-based approach starts by considering where not to log, based on factors such as species in the area and other uses of the landscape, including tourism and recreation. From there, stakeholders could make choices about how and where to selectively log with minimal impact on the environment.
“I’m not saying ‘no logging ever,’” Morrison said. She considers logging a tool in forest management, not simply a matter of timber extraction. “Why we do it will dictate how, where and when we do it,” she said.
Dave Klepacki, a longtime Bragg Creek resident, avid outdoorsman and member of the Stand for the Upper Elbow community group, agrees. He’s not against logging per se, but he sees selective logging, not clear cutting, as the better way to proceed.
“If we keep going at this rate [of timber extraction], then the vitality of our water reservoir is going to be seriously altered,” Klepacki said. “Water is literally the lifeblood of the land.”
However, SLS’s Kulcsar says that selective harvesting would be unsustainable in the Elbow basin because the tree species would not successfully reforest under a tree canopy. “To meet the silviculture/reforestation requirements of Lodgepole Pine and White Spruce,” Kulcsar said, “harvest areas must have the majority of the tree canopy removed in patches to open the harvest area to full sunlight.”
In a written reply to questions from the ERWP, Michael Wagner, a forest hydrologist with the provincial government, agreed that selective logging is not necessarily the right choice in the Elbow watershed. Lodgepole Pine is a pioneer species, (“the first species on site after succession is reset from disturbance”) and is best regenerated on open sites, he said in his written reply. Wagner added that selective logging can create other negative impacts such as an increased footprint from forestry operations (less volume/hectare), more roads on the landscape for longer periods of time, and a higher chance of wind throw/blowdown of remaining trees.
Klepacki suggested that certain areas should be off-limits to timber harvesting altogether. To protect water in the Elbow River watershed, he and members of Stand for the Upper Elbow would like to see several cutblocks in the Rainy Summit area removed from the current Harvest Plan created by Spray Lake Sawmills as part of its FMA with the Government of Alberta.
An FMA, as defined by Diane Coleman in her book Mountains to Metropolis, is “a 20-year renewable area-based agreement that gives a forest products company the right to harvest, remove and grow timber in a specified are of Crown land, with responsibility for protection of the watershed, environment and wildlife.” Under the agreement, the specified area can include not only sustainable timber harvesting, but a multitude of other uses such as hunting, recreation and oil and gas operations. Not surprisingly, the many conflicting interests can lead to complications.
The cutblocks that Klepacki and members of Stand for the Upper Elbow would like to see removed are located on steep drainages in the Rainy Summit area, also known as the “Mustang Hills” because of the wild horses that live and roam there. Klepacki worries that runoff from these cut areas would end up in the Elbow River.
Klepacki notes that another proposed cutblock in Kananaskis Country was removed from the Harvest Plan when it was found to overlap with the Cobble Flats Provincial Recreation Area. This example of taking a second look at proposed logging locations and revising is encouraging.
Wagner did not comment specifically on the cutblocks that concern Klepacki, but he said that the provincial government would not allow logging in an area “if there was a change in Land use designation (e.g. Castle Wildland Park) or if the nature of the forest tenure was changed or revoked.” He added that Alberta also has the authority not to approve plans if the company is in debt to the Crown.
Kulcsar was not asked to comment on the status of specific cutblocks; however, he said, “As long as regulatory requirements are met and government approvals received, logging proceeds within the landbase available for timber harvesting under the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP).”
Wagner said in his written statement that forest management is about more than just logging. Forestry operations are regulated and closely monitored to ensure that watershed function and forest resilience are maintained. “The forest management planning process is aligned with provincial polices and recovery efforts,” Wagner said. “The best way to ensure alignment is for forestry and, forest hydrology specialists to continue to be involved at a local-watershed level and ensure forest operations will have the least amount of impact to identified values and other resource management objectives.”
Klepacki applauds the Alberta government’s recent decision not to allow logging in the Castle Mountain area, and he’d like to see similar action in his own backyard, namely Rainy Summit. If not, he worries that his grandchildren will never be able to enjoy the same wilderness experiences that he has come to love in close to 30 years of living in Bragg Creek. “We’ve got the last best habitat here,” he said, “and we’ve got to do our best to protect it.”
Morrison agrees. “It costs so much more to restore than to protect in the first place.”
Silt from Forestry Road 1852A runs into a reach of Silvester Creek, a tributary of the Elbow River, in April 2018.
Silt muddies the water in Silvester Creek 30 metres from the breach in Forestry Road 1852A.
Photos taken by Dave Klepacki April 28, 2018.
Click the link below to download a PDF of the article