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 with Rob Miskosky

Razing the Riparian Part I

Many consider Alberta to have few areas where rules are strong regarding the environment. In fact, it is well known that much of what we do is based on the mighty dollar, not on environmental concerns resulting from industry. Think woodland caribou for instance. This lack of concern has been the bane of our government, a government often chastised for its environmental record.

However, in fairness, I must point out that Alberta’s current system for classifying streams and providing buffer zones to the riparian areas surrounding those streams, to protect them from logging practices, is above average, based upon the practices of other jurisdictions in North America. In fact, Alberta could be considered a leader in this area.

“The riparian area in this photo is highlighted by large growth trees and vegetation that grows along the water body. Riparian areas are the lifeblood of aquatic ecosystems.”
Buffer zones for most streams in Alberta are 30 metres and do not depend upon the presence of fish. Tree removal or disturbance is not allowed within these buffer zones.
Given the health of Alberta’s riparian areas, which studies show is currently poor, there is considerable reason for these buffer zones to remain intact. And many believe they should be much larger than what they currently are.

However, movement is afoot to have our streams reclassified and to allow for some harvest of merchantable timber from within the riparian area, which just so happens to be where some of the largest timber grows.

Currently, logging company West Fraser Timber is in the process of preparing its Detailed Forest Management Plan (DFMP) to be presented to ESRD in September 2014. Submitted with the DFMP will be a Riparian Management Strategy proposing to “manage disturbance in the riparian areas,” according to Hinton Wood Products, a division of West Fraser.

To further understand exactly what West Fraser Timber is asking for, we must first examine the importance of riparian areas.

To begin, a riparian area is the strip of trees, shrubs and grasses that grows along the shoreline of a lake, creek or river. This area acts as a water filter to control erosion and remove impurities from surface water runoff. Without this buffer, water bodies have no defence against what enters them.

Most riparian areas contain large woody debris—trees that have fallen into a water body—that provide shelter for fish and habitat for aquatic insects. Large woody debris also creates pools, riffles and runs, important components of aquatic life.

Large trees and vegetation growing within riparian areas also provide shade, which helps keep stream temperatures cool by controlling the amount of sunlight that reaches the water. Most fish species require cooler water temperatures to breed and survive.

The vegetation that grows within a riparian area is also a source of small organic debris, like leaves, twigs and terrestrial insects. This debris is an important food source for aquatic organisms, including fish.   Riparian vegetation also has deep roots that help maintain the structure of the bank or shoreline by holding the soil intact. This vegetation also reduces erosion, which means less sediment is transported to the water body, keeping fish spawning areas clean, clear and healthy.

Riparian vegetation also reduces the amount of nutrients entering a water body. Too many nutrients results in eutrophication, unhealthy water that leads to serious problems including algal growth and low levels of oxygen dissolved in the water. This, in turn, kills fish and other aquatic creatures.

Riparian vegetation also reduces water velocity during high water events. This slows down stream bed erosion, which can cause a lowering of the local groundwater table.

Based on the above, the importance of the riparian area for its many values, and for human quality of life as well as the health of both fish and wildlife, must be considered; not the value of the merchantable timber available within the riparian area.

Which appears to be the premise behind West Fraser’s Riparian Management Strategy.

According to Nicole Naef, spokesperson for the Alberta Trappers’ Association, “We believe riparian areas need more protection, certainly not less.”

This sentiment is echoed by Global Forest Watch who state, “If the riparian zone has been altered (logged) there will be an increase of sediment to the stream. With the amount of clear-cut logging taking place in Alberta, increasing sediment flow, logging, even selectively within a riparian zone, will impact that stream or lake’s characteristics dramatically.”

But West Fraser is banking on the “natural disturbance” theory that riparian areas really aren’t healthy unless disturbed.

Next month, we’ll look further into West Fraser’s Riparian Management Strategy, the natural disturbance theory and the probable outcome if accepted by ESRD. ■

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