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Trail users discouraged by clear-cut logging plans for West Bragg Creek recreation area

“These are really popular trails, and we know Albertans care so much about having opportunities to go out and appreciate nature,” Devon said. “So it is shocking that this type of logging is allowed.”

Critics of a proposal to clear-cut in a popular hiking and biking wilderness area just west of Bragg Creek are pressuring Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) to significantly modify their logging plans, while some are questioning why they have to send their harvesting crews into the area at all.

The Cochrane forest products company said that as they always do, they are following the environmental stewardship guidelines governing logging in the province, as now governed by the Alberta government’s newly created Forestry, Parks and Tourism department.

SLS plans to log about 900 hectares (2,223 acres) in the West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain areas in 2026, which would damage the recreational area frequented by day-trippers from Calgary and elsewhere. Trails like Fullerton Loop, Race of Spades and Strange Brew are part of the consultation process.

An open house was held in Cochrane on May 3 by SLS, who has the right to log the area following the adoption of a forest management plan (FMP) it signed with the province two years ago.

Devon Earl of the Alberta Wilderness Association is a conservation specialist with a master’s degree in ecology. While some critics lobby for altered operational guidelines, Earl said a strong argument should be made to stop clear-cut logging in such a heavily used tourist area altogether.

“These are really popular trails, and we know Albertans care so much about having opportunities to go out and appreciate nature,” she said. “So it is shocking that this type of logging is allowed.”

She pointed to the irony of the fact the government introduced new Kananaskis Park user fees two years ago, with the stated intention of helping protect recreational areas. At the same time, the province is allowing clear-cut logging in places like West Bragg Creek.

Earl also claimed the public feedback process is lacking.

“In a lot of cases what we have noticed – not with SLS but just in general – is that when the companies do ask for feedback on plans, they’ve already made some of the really big decisions,” she argued.

The result, in her experience, is that concerned groups can spend considerable time and resources producing detailed documents recommending changes to logging practices, with little or no meaningful effect.

“This isn’t a comment on SLS, but the laws really need to change to require stronger public participation and stronger Indigenous consultation, and that really needs to happen prior to decisions being made,” she said.

Logging companies in Alberta and elsewhere (including SLS) have been pointing to clear-cut logging as a way to mitigate wildfire damage, especially in recent years.

Earl disputes that claim; according to her, it can make things worse.

She pointed to Alberta research in mixed-wood forests (released in 2008 in Forest Ecology and Management journal by Krawchuk and Cumming) showing that wildfires are more likely to be initiated in landscapes with a higher proportion of areas that had been logged in the previous 30 years.

“We know clear-cutting dries out the landscape, and especially if there’s a lot of debris left behind that dries out and it becomes really susceptible to wildfires,” she said. “I think wildfires are being used by forestry companies as an excuse to access these old stands that are profitable for them.”

SLS responds

SLS'S logging plans in the area will be subject to public consultation several times between now and 2026, according to Ed Kulcsar, the company's vice-president of woodlands.

In an emailed statement to Great West Media's Cochrane newsroom, Kulcsar said SLS follows the highest standards of forest management as verified through their annual Sustainable Forestry Initiative audits.

Kulcsar’s statement reiterated that SLS is following the Provincial Planning Process.

“Prior to approval by the provincial government, this plan had extensive public and stakeholder involvement in 2020-21, including the sharing of those timber stands selected in the Bragg Creek area,” he said. “The operational planning process in the area has not begun, there is nothing imminently planned for the area, no road approvals requested.”

He went on to state operational planning is scheduled to begin in 2024, for a tentative harvest in 2026.

“SLS is in communication with the trails groups active in the area and will be providing opportunities for public engagement over the next three years, including at our open houses in 2024, 2025 and 2026,” he said.

“This is the opportunity to shape the harvest design and timing of operations; to work out the integration details. We have a successful track record of integrating our plans with the many other uses/users throughout the multiple use area as defined in the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan. All information is posted on our website as it becomes available and people can respond directly through the website,” the statement concludes.

Tourism impacts?

Shaun Peter, who promotes tourism in the Bragg Creek area through his group, Bragg Creek & Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation (BCKOR), said when the public got involved in 2012 to fight the plan to clear-cut in the area, they eventually were successful in convincing the province to force SLS to adopt some less intrusive logging practices, like smaller cut blocks and trail buffers.

After the open house on May 3, Peter said he was discouraged to find they’ve lost all that ground, all those more environmentally-friendly measures have been abandoned, and they will have to start the fight all over again.

The damage to the recreational area without those mitigation measures would be severe, he warned.

“It won’t look the same for 80 years,” he said.

It's economically short-sighted, Peter believes, to negatively impact a tourist area that saw upwards of 300,000 visitors in 2020, according to vehicle counters that were established at the West Bragg Creek parking lot and Allen Bill Pond, based on an assumption of 2.2 persons per vehicle.

If the province were to disallow cutting timber in the area altogether, Peter said it was possible that SLS would have to be compensated, since they have permission already and have made plans. If that were indeed the case, he said there’s a simple solution – use the revenue collected form the Kananaskis Park user fees to compensate the logging company.

It remains to be seen if that scenario is a viable option.

Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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