Concern mounting over 'extensive' Upper Highwood logging plans in Kananaskis

Thousands of Albertans are voicing opposition to a plan to clearcut about 2,000 football fields worth of forest in Kananaskis Country’s Upper Highwood set to begin this winter.

Conservationists and other concerned groups say Spray Lakes Sawmills’ (SLS) plan to harvest the 1,100-hectare plot – including a stretch along the Highwood River – threatens environment, wildlife habitat and recreation in the area.

“There’s a number of concerns. A lot of it has to do with implications on habitat itself,” said Amber Toner with Take a Stand for the Upper Highwood, an advocacy group formed in 2017 in response to another logging project in the area that saw 450 hectares removed.

“The logging is happening along 21 kilometres of the Highwood River and that river is home to some species like our at-risk native trout species here in Alberta. That area is also home to grizzly bears and so many other species that live there.”

Since last week, Take a Stand’s letter-writing campaign objecting the harvest has facilitated over 1,800 emails landing in the inboxes of the ministers of Forestry and Parks and Environment and Protected Areas, members of the Legislative Assembly and the Premier’s office.

The letter calls for a stop to all logging operations in Kananaskis Country and reevaluation of the Forest Management Agreement between the province and SLS.

SLS holds a renewable 20-year agreement for the partial management of forests within Kananaskis’ public lands.

The Cochrane-based lumber company is part of a Forest Management Agreement set up in 2001 for Alberta’s southern east slopes. It is the southernmost forestry agreement area in the province, spanning about 284,307 hectares from Sundre to K-Country. The current agreement duration is in place until 2035.

Kananaskis Country, which is a mixed-use area, is comprised of an ecological reserve, provincial parks, provincial recreation areas, wildland provincial parks, public land use zones, and public and private lands, each coming with its own level of protection.

About 38 per cent of the region’s 420,000 hectares is unprotected and susceptible to resource extraction, such as logging and oil and gas operations, including this 1,100-hectare plot of public land in the Upper Highwood, nestled between Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park and Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park.

“I think a lot of people just don’t realize when they go out there how much of that land is at stake because that area is not protected under a provincial park, public land use zone, or any other designation,” said Toner.

As an avid fly fisher, Toner has spent decades of her life on the Highwood River and surrounding Loomis and McPhail creeks, which is known habitat to many fish species like rainbow, brook and brown trout, as well as at-risk Westslope cutthroat and bull trout.

Westslope cutthroat and bull trout are listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act.

Toner said she worries about damaging effects to at-risk fish populations from road machinery on the river as access construction has already begun in the area, including bridge work.

“Bull trout in particular are a slow-growing fish. They don’t spawn until they reach five to seven years of age,” she said. “They’re also fall-spawning fish, so it’s concerning when you have all this movement right now happening out there building a bridge across the river and machinery driving through it.”

Once logging along the river begins, Josh Killeen, conservation science and program manager at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta, said sedimentation poses a further risk to fish species. Logging operations plan to come within 200 metres of the Highwood River.

“There’s a big risk when you have clearcut harvest close to these water bodies,” Killeen said. “You get a lot of sedimentation going into those water bodies and causing problems for those species.

“This is particularly concerning in this area because it’s pretty rugged, steep terrain, and that generally means that there’s quite a high risk of erosion.”

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The area is also in the middle of core grizzly bear habitat. Grizzlies, too, are considered threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act.

Just over half of SLS’ defined logging area of 334,246 hectares under its 2021 Forestry Management Plan (FMP) is classified as core grizzly bear habitat and an additional 37 per cent of the area is secondary grizzly habitat, according to the FMP.

“This is part of a recovery zone for that species. It’s right in between the two parks,” said Killeen.

“We have a commitment from the Alberta government and the federal government to protect and recover these species, and that doesn’t really seem compatible with harvesting right along that river and in those areas where those tributaries flow.”

Killeen said riparian vegetation helps streambank integrity and removing root systems comes with a further risk of flooding.

“The science is pretty clear that as soon as you start harvesting the forest in these watersheds, which are deep and upstream, then you tend to increase the flood risk because intact forests reduce that risk,” he said.

The lumber company’s 1,700-page FMP outlines the management of timber on Alberta Crown land within the lumber company’s defined extraction area, aiming to harmonize social, economic, and environmental needs.

Vice-president of woodlands with SLS, Ed Kulcsar, said all those factors help identify suitable harvest areas within the FMP, which also works under the guidelines of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan and other integrated resource management plans or sub-regional plans that cover the FMP planning area.

Ages of tree stands are also factored in. The plot in the Upper Highwood is estimated to be about 100 years old, with evidence of logging from 100 years prior, said Kulcsar.

Just as important to balanced planning is input from the public, Indigenous communities and interest groups, he said.

“On a broader strategic plan, there were a number of public participation opportunities. We had an advisory group, we held open houses, we provided online information, we’ve got a stakeholder public list of over 400 people or organizations that have expressed interest in our forestry plan over the years,” said Kulcsar.

“Certainly, through public participation, we have conversations with the different public groups out there and if people identify some specific concerns or opportunities, we are definitely looking at that."

“It is mixed use, so we need to get along and we need to integrate our activities with the activities of others.”

A public input section of the 2021 FMP identified “keeping all forestry activities out of the West Bragg Creek and Highwood River recreational areas” as an area of concern.

Take a Stand also voiced concern at that time about the planned “scale and intensity of operations” in the Highwood.

Kulcsar said through public consultation, areas in the FMP were rated in terms of visual sensitivity to logging operations.

“Some of those areas identified then went into operational planning where we’ll do some visualization type modeling to see what that looks like.”

Kulcsar said the Upper Highwood was not flagged as one of those areas.

Logging the 1,100-hectare plot will take place over the course of two years, with road work and less than half the harvest planned for 2023. The majority of the timber harvest will occur over next fall and winter.

Mandatory reforestation legislation in Alberta requires all forests be planted or regenerated within two years of harvesting, to which Kulcsar said SLS is committed. Road reclamation is also included in remediation work.

Kulcsar said SLS harvests timber from about .5 per cent, or about 800 hectares, of the overall mixed-use area within Kananaskis each year where logging is permitted. This does not include protected areas where industry is not permitted.

In a statement to the Outlook, acting press secretary for Forestry and Parks Garrett Koehler said Alberta strives to strike a balance between wide-ranging land use needs in Kananaskis and across the province.

“This includes forestry and outdoor recreation, by providing forest companies with secure, long-term access to Crown timber in exchange for reforestation and sustainable forest management planning for harvest areas,” said Koehler.

“Sustainable forest management is a forward-looking process. While it can alter scenery in the short-term, in the long-term it ensures healthy, viable forest conditions that will benefit future generations.”

Toner said she believes the province approving the logging plan in the Upper Highwood flies in the face of the intent of the Kananaskis Conservation Pass.

“Albertans are paying $90 for a [yearly] conservation pass and then going into an area that’s going to be clear cut as extensively as this, knowing what that money was supposed to be for is not being shown to Albertans that are paying for it,” she said. “I think that’s really a big concern.”

*CORRECTION* A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to the per cent of mixed-use area SLS harvests timber from in Kananaskis annually. It is .5 per cent, not 13 per cent. The Outlook apologizes for and regrets this error.

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook