A plan endorsed by the Alberta government to clear-cut 704 hectares of forest in West Bragg Creek is receiving increased public opposition.
The Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) worked primarily with Spray Lake Sawmills to develop a logging project that will see 18 blocks of forest west of Bragg Creek removed. ESRD says the cutting is necessary to create a fire-break to protect area residents in the event of a fire similar to the one that destroyed 428 homes in Slave Lake in 2011.
Opponents say the clear-cutting will destroy nearly 30 kilometres of hiking and ski trails, risk damage to the Elbow River watershed and do little to slow the spread of wildfires.
Though the plan was revealed in December 2011, opposition is increasing this week following a public information session held by ESRD on August 2 in Bragg Creek. During the session, government representatives presented the Greater Bragg Creek Wildfire Mitigation Strategy, a government plan which includes the logging project, dealing with fire risk to that community. Though the focus of the session was the clear-cut scheme, presenters stressed they were there to discuss fire protection strategies, not logging. Spray Lake Sawmills did not participate.
Many in attendance who rose to ask questions following the presentation said they are not convinced the cutting is necessary, or that the recreational value of the area will be maintained. Sustain Kananaskis, a group that was instrumental in getting ESRD to hold the session, estimates one million people use the forests surrounding Bragg Creek, primarily for hiking, biking, horseback riding and skiing.
“I suspect that what we have is a desire to have logging, and therefore we’re going to terrify people about wildfires,” said Rick Collier, an area resident who was also arrested in February while protesting a clear-cut project in the Castle-Crown Wilderness Area near Pincher Creek.
University of Calgary ecologist Ralph Cartar, who also lives in Bragg Creek, says he is concerned by the government’s “disingenuous” use of information that was presented as scientific, though it was merely an unfounded pronouncement meant to obtain public support for the plan.
“There are tons of peer-reviewed journals that deal with fire both in Kananaskis, in Alberta, in forests in general, Canada-wide.... It’s that science that they are negligent about. They don’t refer to it,” says Cartar.
“Forests of all ages burn with the same probability. You don’t have an increased risk of fire from older forests,” he says. He accuses ESRD of seeming “to know where they want to go and then they use whatever arguments they can use to get to where they want to go, which is to get social buy-in for logging.”
Cartar says his main worry is the risk to biodiversity on Alberta’s Eastern Slopes posed by permitting timber companies to remove vast portions of the province’s old-growth forests.
Many of the issue’s most vocal opponents question the government’s and the logging operator’s commitment to protecting the trail system spread throughout the area to be harvested.
“I’ve seen first-hand the damage in McLean Creek, especially of government-approved trails such as the Barrwell Trail. The east side of that trail has been completely logged off. It took us 20 minutes to find out where that trail extended on the other side of the cutblock, and where’s the mitigation?... You couldn’t mountain bike down it, you couldn’t ski down it, nothing,” says Bragg Creek resident Dean Cockshutt.
ESRD land and range program manager Ross Spence was on hand at the session to answer audience questions about trail restoration. He said that some trails can be protected by a buffer of trees left standing, and that reducing the aesthetic impact of logging is a primary concern for the government here. He also said Spray Lake Sawmills will be subject to inspections by forest management officers from ESRD.
The Greater Bragg Creek Wildfire Mitigation Strategy was authored by Stew Walkinshaw of Montane Forest Management Ltd. He faced criticism for allegedly inappropriately applying fire prediction models in order to necessitate a firebreak that benefited Spray Lake Sawmills. There were also questions as to why the government was promoting a plan developed by a single author, rather than one that had been critiqued by other experts.
Walkinshaw explained that “for that piece of ground, clear-cut is the most effective tool,” however many other mitigation techniques would be used in and around Bragg Creek. He also said the location of the fire breaks was determined based on surveying prevalent wind direction during the months where fires are most likely to occur. He also held that the community’s fire prevention plans had been drawn up and approved by the West Bragg Creek Land Users Group, which includes representatives from the Greater Bragg Creek Trails Association and the Calgary Mountain Bike Alliance, though it is unclear whether either of those groups approved the final strategy.
Robert Sadee is volunteer with the Greater Bragg Creek Trails Association. He says his group did not design or endorse the plan. Instead, he says its only role was “to try to identify how do you mitigate damage to the trails.”
Much of the government’s motivation to create wildfire mitigation strategies in communities like Bragg Creek appears to stem from the damage done in last year’s fire in Slave Lake. An inquiry into that fire recommended the province prevent future wildfires by making “significant enhancements to wildfire prevention,” and “accelerate fuel management treatments near communities,” with emphasis on forest-thinning practices.
ESRD Minister Diana McQueen has promised to act quickly on all the inquiry’s recommendations. However, ESRD’s own online statistics state that with an average of 1,500 wildland fires per year, 98 per cent of them are under control soon after they begin, “indicating that the ministry is [already] very successful in managing wildfires in Alberta.”
Peter Tucker is a certified mountain guide living in Bragg Creek, and a member of Sustain Kananaskis. He says he remains skeptical about the government’s reasoning for the logging project. He says his group’s main goal has always been to create more timely dialogue between the government and the primary users of Bragg Creek’s recreation areas. He says consultation thus far has been inadequate, including the session on August 2, because it was scheduled with very short notice, on a long weekend, and ESRD set the parameters for what would be discussed.
Tucker and two other members of Sustain Kananaskis have a meeting with McQueen scheduled for August 9 in Edmonton to discuss the logging in Bragg Creek. Though the cutting was tentatively scheduled to begin this June, it hasn’t started, nor has the plan received final approval.