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 with Rob Miskosky

Razing the Riparian Part II

Last month, we looked at riparian areas and their importance to maintaining healthy water bodies that in turn provide fish and wildlife with the requirements for life, and improve human quality of life by protecting the water bodies we depend on for drinking water, irrigation, recreation etc.

Based on available information, Alberta’s riparian areas are considered to be in poor health, even with some of the more protective regulations in North America. And because of this, many believe those current regulations, while strong compared to other jurisdictions, simply aren’t providing enough protection to riparian areas from industrial and human-use. Thus the reason for the poor rating given by the Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society, better known as Cows and Fish.

“Alberta’s Water for Life strategy must develop policies that ensure Albertans have safe, healthy and reliable water for fish and wildlife, as well as human-use.”
However, riparian health is difficult to assess and is far from complete in Alberta. Because of this, new monitoring and measuring programs are being put into place to provide better information regarding riparian health here at home.

The Alberta Water Council (AWC), a not-for-profit association made up of 24 stakeholder-members representing industries, governments and NGO sector groups, steward the implementation of Alberta’s Water for Life strategy and report back to the minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) on their progress.

According to Gord Edwards, executive director of the AWC, “We manage the process that engages multi-stakeholder teams to reach consensus-based recommendations within each of our final reports.” Those recommendations are then given to ESRD who “has the final say on provincial policy development and regulatory matters.”

Two AWC reports due this fall include Alberta’s Wetland Policy and the Riparian Land Conservation and Management Report. Both reports will be the driving force behind their respective titles and guide government on how best to protect wetlands and riparian areas to accomplish the three main goals of the Water for Life strategy, which are 1) The supply of safe and secure drinking water; 2) Healthy aquatic ecosystems; and 3) Reliable and high quality water supplies for a sustainable economy.

Those goals will only be achieved through hard work, sacrifice, and sound science. However, not everybody is working from the same sound science.

Logging giant, West Fraser Timber, has come up with science that suggests leaving un-logged buffer zones around riparian areas is not sound science, as previously thought. In fact, they believe that “riparian and upland areas experience natural disturbance and both require disturbance to maintain ecological function.”

What this means is that West Fraser wants to implement logging practices within riparian areas to obtain this desirable ecological function. However, the red herring in all this is that the largest merchantable timber also happens to lie in these same areas.

What West Fraser is proposing in their 2014 Detailed Forest Management Plan (DFMP) that will be submitted to ESRD next year, is to change the current Operating Ground Rules that govern how they operate on public lands. And to do so, they have come up with a new means of channel classification as part of their new Riparian Management Strategy that will accompany the DFMP.

Currently, there is no timber removal allowed within a specified distance from a watercourse larger than 40 centimetres wide; generally, this distance is 30 metres.

West Fraser’s proposal is to reclassify watercourses based on what they do, not on their size. If a channel is newly classified as fluvial (having a continuous bed and sufficient flow), it will have a “10 metre management zone where timber that interacts with the channel is protected, but timber that doesn’t interact with the channel could be removed from this zone.”

Which is a considerable change from what currently exists in the government’s Operating Ground Rules where buffer zones must be adhered to and no logging practices can take place within these zones.

Channels that are reclassified as non-fluvial (continuous bed but insufficient flow) will have timber harvest allowed to the channel’s edge. A reversal of what is currently allowed.

Many of the academic community believe that logging within riparian areas and especially near headwaters, combined with over-sized cutblocks will surely put an end to Alberta’s provincial fish, the bull trout. The impact on arctic grayling and cutthroat trout will also be felt in those areas where those populations still struggle to hang on.

In a 2004 report titled, “Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) occurrence and abundance influenced by cumulative industrial developments in a Canadian boreal forest watershed” by Travis Ripley, Garry Scrimgeour, and Mark S. Boyce, it was determined: “...we forecasted that forest harvesting over the next 20 years is projected to result in the local extirpation of bull trout from 24% to 43% of stream reaches that currently support bull trout in the Kakwa River Basin.”

“Natural disturbance” means the pattern of disturbances that shape an ecosystem over time, such as fire and flooding; logging companies try to emulate these natural disturbances with their logging practices. And maybe clear-cut logging is as close as we can come to a natural disturbance without prescribed burning; however, clear-cut logging is not equal to a natural burning forest fire. In fact, the differences between clear-cut logging and the effects of fire are well documented; clear-cutting does not mimic the regenerative effects of fire. Nor would selective logging within riparian areas.

According to Aaron Jones, Hinton Wood Products Communications Coordinator, “We have been working closely over a number of years with the Foothills Research Institute, leading researchers in stream mapping and riparian management, and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development to develop an approach to natural disturbance emulation—supported by sound science—to improve the long-term ecological health of this specific area (riparian).”

But then the Canadian Institute of Forestry throws out the baby with the bathwater, offering, “Our results suggest that, even though the absolute effort required to harvest trees was greater in riparian zones, the larger average size of the trees more than compensated, so that the wood volume removed per unit effort was higher in riparian zones than in clear-cuts.”

So, which is it, the long-term ecological health of riparian areas, or the wood volume that can be removed from riparian areas?

Or, is West Fraser rolling the dice, hoping for both?

According to Duncan MacDonnell, Public Affairs Officer with ESRD, when asked how companies like West Fraser get Operating Ground Rules changed, “Those rules are stringent. We scale up, not down,” he said. MacDonnell also appeared surprised when told of West Fraser’s plans saying, “We don’t tailor to individual companies.”

In light of Alberta’s Water for Life strategy, many hope he’s right. ■

For previous Outdoor Pursuits click here.

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