A clearcut logging project in the Castle-Crown Wilderness Area west of Pincher Creek has been halted by the provincial government.
Andy Weiler of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) explained by email that Spray Lake Sawmills, the Cochrane-based company licensed to log a portion of the Castle-Crown, would be allowed to finish its first-year harvesting plans. After that, the company must decommission the access road it built for the project without proceeding with the rest of its multi-year program.
ESRD spokesperson Duncan MacDonnell says once the sawmill removes the 50,000 cubic metres of timber scheduled for the first year of the logging project, cutting will be on hold until the government’s South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) and Land Use Framework is finalized.
“What the government had said when the Land Use Framework was initially adopted and approved [in December 2008] was that existing development rights and projects would continue while that process was underway, because we knew that it would take some time to get plans [for the SSRP] developed…. You can’t bring everything to a halt,” says MacDonnell. Now that the process is entering a new phase, this project is on hold.
News of the stoppage came as a surprise to conservation groups that oppose logging in the Castle, especially since on January 21, Premier Alison Redford told a news conference in Lethbridge the project was sound, approved, and there was no reason to stop it. An August meeting between Environment Minister Diana McQueen and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) to discuss the status of the Castle-Crown was also inconclusive.
Gordon Petersen, president of the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition, says he received no indication over the course of protesting the logging project that the government would stop it. He also says he’s surprised by MacDonnell’s assertion that all existing projects were to proceed until this phase of planning the SSRP Land Use Framework.
He says he was led to believe projects already underway in the South Saskatchewan region would not be halted or affected by the planning process. Yet he was also told a government decision on conservationists’ request to designate the Castle-Crown a provincial park would have to wait until the Land Use Framework was complete.
“It seemed a bit schizophrenic in that respect, that some projects like logging would go ahead, but other projects, like a park, which has been sort of in the works for the past 14 years now, would have to wait for the outcome [of the SSRP],” says Petersen.
The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan is part of the provincial government’s 2008 decision to overhaul land management across Alberta. The province was divided into seven regions, each based around a major river basin. A management strategy will be written for each region, taking into account regional issues such as tourism, resource extraction, infrastructure, recreation, agriculture and conservation.
The first of these land use plans to come into effect is for the Lower Athabasca region, which the government presented this summer. The SSRP, encompassing the entire province south of Crossfield, will be the second land use plan created. It accounts for roughly 12 per cent of Alberta’s land area and is home to 45 per cent of the population. The SSRP is expected to be approved within several years.
MacDonnell and Weiler both say this phase of developing the SSRP is an opportunity for conservation groups to make a case for giving the Castle-Crown protected status.
The SSRP process is “completely and totally open to the public,” says MacDonnell.
Dianne Pachal, the former head of the prairie chapter of the Sierra Club of Canada, suggests arguments to make the Castle-Crown a park or protected wilderness area hardly need to be made again. She says the question has already been put through three major public consultations, in 1985, 1993 and 1998. All of which concluded the area required some form of legislated environmental protection.
Petersen also says conservation groups such as his Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition, the Sierra Club, CPAWS and the Alberta Wilderness Coalition have all tried in vain to make presentations to legislative bodies and advisory councils, such as the volunteer advisory committee established to study the South Saskatchewan region and make a detailed report to the government about what the SSRP should consist of.
“We actually have been trying to participate for quite a long time,” says Petersen of the SSRP process. “We had attempted to make a presentation to the RAC: the Regional Advisory Committee that was working on the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, and we never in fact managed to do that…. Basically, there was no opportunity for groups to present.”
Spray Lake Sawmills did not return requests for comment on this story, however it is likely its representatives have more information than conservation groups since Gordon Lehn, who is the company’s manager for the Castle logging project, also sits on the SSRP Regional Advisory Committee.
In addition to Lehn, the 20-person advisory committee is made up of six officials from various levels of government, two irrigation managers, two lawyers, two oil and gas company representatives, three consulting agency employees, one First Nations representative, a cattle rancher, and a person listed as a former staff member of Ducks Unlimited.
The controversial Castle-Crown logging project was approved in 2005. Opposition to the project has been consistent since that time. Cutting began in February of 2012, amid protests that led to the arrest of four protesters on a picket line blocking equipment from accessing the logging site.
Opponents to the logging maintain the government did bestow a measure of protected status on the area in 2000 when it was included in the “Special Places” program.
CPAWS also initiated a judicial inquiry into the legality of Spray Lake Sawmills’ licence to log the Castle. That inquiry is set to begin November 1, in a Calgary court.