Our Vital Forests

and how Alberta mismanages them

By Tadzio Richards

I ’ve seen the transformation of the country in my lifetime,” says biologist Lorne Fitch as we drive up gravel Highway 517 to Hidden Creek. “Alberta’s Forest Service has failed to recognize that there are more values to these landscapes than fibre. A lot of policy is driven by mill capacity. They have to feed the maw.”

A burly man with a trim silver beard, Fitch is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary and the provincial riparian specialist for Alberta Cows and Fish. “If you want to know what’s happening in Alberta’s forests, you should look at the fish,” he says. Hidden Creek—previously “the best habitat and spawning ground in the Oldman system”—was logged in early 2013. After the logging, Fitch found an 85 per cent reduction in active spawning sites in the creek. In 2014 an analysis of satellite data by Global Forest Watch found that the rate of deforestation on the eastern slopes is faster even than in the oil sands around Fort McMurray. Aside from a few protected areas, most stream watersheds on the eastern slopes are slated for logging.

Fitch parks his blue Toyota in a pullout beside the Oldman River, upstream from the confluence with Hidden Creek. He tells me that many spawning streams are degraded by sediment that runs into the water from cutblocks, seismic lines and rampant off-highway-vehicle use. Streambeds can be hard like cement and the fish nearly gone.

The sun is red in the morning sky. Forest fires are burning in Washington State and thick smoke obscures the mountains. Fitch puts on waders and splashes across the low, cold waters of the Oldman to a stand of lodgepole pines between the river and a logging cutblock stretching up the slope into the ashen haze. “The question we have to answer as a society,” he says, “is What do we want our forests to be?”

Forestry is Alberta’s third-largest PRIMARY economic sector after oil and gas and agriculture, but Albertans get only a tiny fraction of the revenue generated by private corporations from the publicly owned forests. “Stumpage fees,” like royalties, are the price a private company pays government for the trees harvested. Even when corporate, personal and property taxes from forestry companies and workers are added to the stumpage and other government fees, Alberta collects less revenue from forestry than it spends fighting forest fires each year. This pattern—industry collects the bulk of the profits, while citizens pay to safeguard the resource—is not unique to forestry in Alberta, though it’s remarkably entrenched in the sector; Alberta’s forest management structure has changed little since 1954.

Despite recent growth in sales revenues—up to $5.4-billion in 2014—commercial forestry in Alberta operates under the radar. Until the NDP appointment of Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier, Alberta hadn’t had a minister with “Forestry” in their title since 1992. Even now, Business in Alberta, a government website, profiles 13 Alberta industries but forestry is not focused on. The invisibility is strange because Alberta is a province of forests. Roughly 60 per cent of the landscape is forested, over 38 million hectares in the boreal forest and the eastern slopes of the Rockies—an area larger than Montana or Japan—and almost all of that forest is publicly owned.

Forests fulfill many functions essential to life. They absorb carbon dioxide produced by vehicle emissions, the burning of coal for electricity, and other pollution. They create oxygen and regulate climate. The roots of trees stabilize slopes and absorb water, preventing soil erosion and flooding. Forests provide habitat for wildlife and preserve plant diversity. They also have aesthetic value as places of beauty and awe where people can connect with nature.

But Alberta’s forests are not managed to protect these crucial functions.

Shaped by fire, insects and, in recent decades, intensive human use, our forests can be understood as anti-fragility systems. Economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term in 2012. As opposed to mere resilience, where a system absorbs a shock and remains the same, anti-fragility systems get stronger with shocks and are harmed when deprived of the needed stress. Alberta’s forests fit this description because of their dependence on fire. “The boreal forest,” writes Cordy Tymstra, wildlife science coordinator with the Government of Alberta, “is designed by nature to burn. It is truly a pyrogenic forest, where fire, as a persistent evolutionary pressure, favours plants and animals with specific survival traits.”

In Alberta’s pre-industrial era the forests were a mix of trees of different species and ages. After a fire, pioneer species such as lodgepole pine, jack pine, aspen and poplar pop up quickly. Spruce trees grow later, in the shade of other trees. Much later, firs spring up among spruce. Before intensive fire suppression, which ramped up on the eastern slopes in 1930, wildfires burned non-linear swaths of trees, opening meadows and ground for new growth among stands of old growth. The forests contained diverse habitat. But with industrial logging has come homogeneity.

The rate of deforestation in Alberta’s eastern slopes is faster even than in the oil sands around Fort McMurray.

Since 1961 timber harvesting has increased some 600 per cent. Alberta forestry companies cut down a forested area roughly the size of Edmonton every year. The allowable annual limit for the cut is even more (30.7 million m3 in 2014). To replace lost volume, companies typically replant an average of two trees for every one cut down, and the landscape becomes peppered with clear-cuts growing dense with trees of a uniform age and size. Over time, government policies of fire suppression have also created a greater amount of dense, continuous “mature” forest—homogenized, criss-crossed and fragmented by new roads, oil and gas and other industrial development. As the population grows, more people use the forests for recreation, often with ATVs and off-road motorcycles, and more people live on acreages in forested areas. Cumulatively these trends have degraded and eliminated habitat for bull trout and woodland caribou, which are in steep decline.

The International Boreal Conservation Science Panel, of which David Schindler, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Alberta, is a member, stated in 2013 that Canada’s intact boreal forests, including peatlands and wetlands, contain the world’s highest densities of terrestrial stored carbon—at least 208 billion tonnes of it. Three-quarters of Alberta’s forests are in the boreal. Along with providing critical habitat for birds and other animals, boreal wetlands act as giant sponges, filtering water before releasing it back into the landscape. Schindler and the panel hold that at least 50 per cent of the Canadian boreal “should be forever protected from development.”

Forests prevent flooding. A 2013 study of flooding in forested and deforested areas in England found that water sinks into soil under trees 67 times faster than it sinks into hardened, deforested ground. Forest soil becomes a sponge that sucks up water and releases it slowly. On the eastern slopes of the Rockies, this sponge effect—along with shade-protected snowpack—plays a key role in storing water and preventing downstream floods in the Bow, Red Deer, Oldman and other rivers flowing out from the mountains through prairie cities and towns.

“We are unaware of what a forest ecosystem really entails, because we are so single-minded in our pursuit of profit from trees,” says retired forester and University of Alberta professor Kåre Hellum. “If we want sustainable forests, the profit motive cannot be the guiding principle.”

In the Hidden Creek watershed, Fitch and I walk through large cutblocks with irregular, non-linear borders. Planted tree seedlings poke from the deforested ground. “If you manage for fibre, then you replant every tree,” says Fitch. “But if you manage for other values, then you do something else. If we want diversity, we need disturbance. But it won’t be timber harvest. It’ll be fire. Prescribed fire would be best.”

The Alberta government and industry divvy up respon-sibility for managing commercially productive forests in the province, which is over 60 per cent of the forests. Companies do the detail work of planning and inventory on long-term, renewable forest tenures, on which they are also responsible for replanting to replace cut trees. Government approves forestry management plans and is responsible for monitoring and enforcement. It also takes inventories of fish and wildlife, fights fires and coordinates responses to insect outbreaks such as the recent mountain pine beetle infestation.

Forest Management Agreements (FMAs) between industry and government cover nearly all commercially productive forest. The first FMA was established near Hinton in 1954, when the province signed an agreement with North Western Pulp & Power. This deal set the template for subsequent FMAs. In return for accepting “full responsibility for forest management,” the company got an exclusive 21-year lease (dropped to 20 years in other FMAs) to harvest a government-allocated volume of timber within a large prescribed area. The company also had to build a pulp mill, sawmill or plywood mill in the area covered by the FMA. For the Socred government of the day, investment and employment were the primary benefits of the deal. As Larry Pratt and Ian Urquhart point out in The Last Great Forest, “gathering economic rent from the resource was not an important public policy objective.”

forest-pic1Left: Biologist Lorne Fitch: “What do we want our forests to be? AFS fails to recognize there are more values to these landscapes than fibre.” Right: “I’ve seen the transformation of the country in my lifetime. Government policy is driven by mill capacity. They have to feed the maw.” (Left: Tadzio Richards. Right: Lorne Fitch)

In the Don Getty and Ralph Klein eras, new FMA agreements were often a “sweetheart deal,” in Klein’s phrase. For instance, Al-Pac, Alberta’s largest FMA, overlapping much of the oil sands in the northeast, was signed in 1991, and a $1.3-billion pulp mill began operation in 1993. Alberta gave $350-million in infrastructure and loans to Al-Pac, but the province, according to Pratt and Urquhart, “obtains none of the equity or the profits and only very low stumpage fees.”
The current FMA system, and the government’s approach, has barely changed. Today there are 20 FMAs in Alberta, each named after the company with the tenure: “West Fraser” on the original Hinton FMA, “Spray Lake Sawmills” on the eastern slopes, “Al-Pac Forest Products” in the northeast. The sector had a downturn with the 2008 US housing crisis, so in 2009 the government gave them more advantages. Then-minister Ted Morton supported “restoring competitiveness to forestry” by—among other initiatives—“rationalizing” planning and limiting costs. That same year, PricewaterhouseCoopers noted that “stumpage rates are highly competitive in Alberta when compared to other jurisdictions.”

Since then, industry revenues have grown, along with a gradual increase in the timber harvest. Provincial government revenues from forestry fees, in contrast, are now less than they were 20 years ago. In 2013 Canada’s National Forestry Database showed Alberta’s revenues from the sale of provincial Crown land timber—in the form of stumpage fees, rent and area/holding charges, reforestation levies, sales and rentals, penalties and interest charges—totalled approximately $52-million. That’s significantly less than the $162-million collected from those sources in 2004; less, even, than the $57-million collected in 1995.

In 2010 a joint industry and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development document, Forest Products Roadmap, reported that the forestry industry, in that year, “generated $200-million in personal and corporate taxation.” These numbers match 2012 figures made available by the provincial government, though government documents note those figures also include “timber royalties,” and “required fees and permits.” In the 2011/12 budget year, the provincial government spent over $396-million on forestry management and industry development expenses, including $339-million for wildfire management—a total much higher than what they took in from the industry.

In the 2015–16 budget year—a bad season for forest fires—the provincial government spent $474-million on wildfire fighting. In the year ahead, revenues from forestry will not likely cover firefighting costs. Asked if there would be changes to Alberta’s forestry tenure or royalty system under the NDP, Minister Carlier said, “No, not at this time.”

Forestry companies have de facto control over much of Alberta’s forests, though the degree of corporate agency is disputed. “We don’t have a free rein,” says Rick Bonar, president of fRI, an applied forestry research institute based in Hinton. “[Forestry companies] have the opportunity to innovate but we have to stay within government requirements. In the end, government is the decider.”

Bonar is also a wildlife biologist with West Fraser, one of the largest forestry companies in Alberta. He and Aaron Jones, management forester for West Fraser, give me a tour of cutblocks and a sawmill on the company’s one-million-hectare FMA surrounding Hinton, beside Jasper National Park. Jones stops the company truck on the side of a dirt forestry road to show a map of the tenure. It is thick with oil and gas wells, pipelines and seismic lines. “We work with oil and gas to mitigate their effects,” says Bonar, noting that every 10 years the company makes a new forestry plan that stretches 200 years into the future. “When oil and gas is gone, we’ll still be here. Our resource is renewable.”

“That’s right,” says Jones. “The mill would be scrap metal without a sustainable timber supply.” Both Jones and Bonar are keen to stress forestry’s green credentials. The eco-friendly spin is not unique. The joint industry and government Forest Products Roadmap touts forestry as “Alberta’s greenest manufacturing sector,” noting that at least 77 per cent of Alberta’s forests are third-party certified for “sustainable forest management.” The toughest certification—supported by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club of Canada—is from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for which an independent certifier inspects a forest to determine whether management practices meet FSC principles and criteria for “environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest management.” In Alberta, Al-Pac was FSC certified in 2005, followed by Spray Lake Sawmills in 2013.

West Fraser doesn’t have FSC certification, though in January 2016, along with other signatories to the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement—signed in 2010 to “make peace between the forest industry and environmental organizations”—the company committed to using logging practices that “more closely resemble the impact of fire, winds, insects and other natural disturbances.” This approach, called “natural range of variation,” emerges from research done at fRI in Hinton looking at how forest fires burn without human intervention. According to the Alberta Forests Products Association, the researchers found that in Alberta “most forests would burn every 50–100 years” and the province has “an unnaturally large area of forests that are older than 80.” Aiming to “help maintain a natural and healthy forest,” the implication, in many cases, is that logging can replace fire.

“Forestry used to be a utilitarian, industrial, efficient system geared toward maximizing tree growth and quality,” says Bonar. “Now we’re saying, well, we’re going to have that, but what else can we do? Simple changes like leaving trees behind as biological legacies, in the same way a forest fire would. When it’s cut it looks different than fire, but there’s a process of convergence. If you come back in 30–40 years you wouldn’t see the difference. We still get our wood, but it’s more sustainable.”

Lorne Fitch disagrees. “To say logging is a surrogate for fire defies logic,” he says. “Fire is a natural disturbance that these watersheds and the creatures in them have adapted to. Fire leaves behind all of the woody material, unlike logging, where we haul it all out. If you predicate timber harvest on annual allowable cut—which is predicated on mill capacity instead of native trout or water quality or other forest values—something will fail. Cutblocks exacerbate flood conditions. Forest fire protection creates the opportunity for immense, hot fires. I’m not against logging, but we have to use logging more intelligently, from a landscape health perspective.”

Alberta’s need for better land-use planning is widely acknowledged. In a second-floor office in northwest Calgary, Brad Stelfox, adjunct professor at the University of Alberta and founder of ALCES Landscape and Land-Use Ltd., shows me Alberta’s forests as seen through a computer modelling program—“A Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator”—that he developed for his company. The program is a way to project current land-use trends into the future. Currently, Albertans cut trees for wood products, to access oil and gas, to graze cattle on public lands, to build communities and acreages and to get into nature on foot, horseback or mud-churning ATVs or off-road motorbikes. “You start adding these things up,” says Stelfox, “and you see the need to integrate all these demands. In other words you can’t only talk to forestry. The forests are there for carbon, biodiversity, water quality and quantity, and we also want to extract commodities. In a climate change scenario we might say managing for water trumps all other uses.”

When PC minister Morton introduced a new provincial land-use framework in 2008, he said, “We have reached a tipping point. There are competing demands for oil, gas, forestry, agriculture, industrial development, housing, recreation and conservation—often on the same lands.… These new realities call for new approaches to managing land.”

The framework, codified in 2009 by the Alberta Land Stewardship Act, enables the government to set clear boundaries to development. Seven regional land-use planning zones have been created across Alberta. Each regional plan would establish local air, land, water and biodiversity limits that, if exceeded, could lead to fines or a halt on development.

The government’s broader goal is to create an Integrated Resource Management System. The aim is to proactively plan for current and future public needs and to integrate cumulative effects management into the planning process—an achievement that has eluded other Canadian jurisdictions such as BC. By early 2016, two land-use plans had been completed, one initiated and four not yet started. One of the completed plans—the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, which covers much of the oil sands—got a bumpy reception. Critics such as Mike Hudema of Greenpeace and David Schindler saw the plan as flawed because of weak limits on land disturbance and groundwater withdrawal and a lack of reliable, science-based data to drive decision-making. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation argued the plan does not adequately protect treaty rights and does not clearly address cumulative effects or the destruction of traditional territories.

On the eastern slopes, the completed South Saskatchewan Regional Plan is also controversial. In September 2015 Shannon Phillips, Minister of Environment and Parks, amended the regional plan and announced a new provincial park and an expanded wildlands park in the Castle Wilderness Area in the Oldman River watershed. The new protections stopped planned logging by Spray Lake Sawmills. Local residents in the Ghost River watershed, directly upstream from Calgary, now call for a moratorium on logging until more science has been done on another part of the same Spray Lake FMA. So far the request has been rebuffed. “It’s a forestry management agreement,” said Phillips, in a January 2016 Calgary Herald interview. “[The logging] was long planned for by the company in question, so it does proceed.”

“The forestry sector in Alberta is one of the most sustainable industries in the world,” said Forestry Minister Carlier when I spoke to him in December 2015. “It’s a real partnership between Albertans and the industry.” As oil and gas suffers a downturn, Alberta’s forestry industry is growing—the $5.4-billion in revenues in 2014 was up from $4-billion in 2010. Lumber, pulp and paper, panel board and other forest products are sold in Canada and also exported, mostly to the US, though also to Japan, China, South Korea and the European Union. Currently the sector directly and indirectly employs over 14,000 Albertans, though the Alberta Forests Products Association calculates a spin-off of two jobs—in equipment sales, hospitality, contracting and other employment—for every forestry-related job. “About 17 communities in Alberta rely heavily on the forestry industry,” said Carlier. “It’s important we keep it sustainable.”

Alberta has a new government. That doesn’t mean we’ll see systemic change in forest management anytime soon.

Tadzio Richards is an associate editor with Alberta Views. His story on the 2015 Alberta election ran in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue.


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