Species at Risk Act enlisted to halt clearcutting
Community action groups fighting the logging of the Upper Clearwater Valley at the entrance to Wells Gray Provincial Park have banded together and are going above the province to take their issue to the federal level.
The company carrying out the logging, Canfor, as well as the B.C. government, have refused to stop the logging based on the community’s complaints that it will wipe out the Southern Mountain Caribou.
On April 7 the groups’ lawyer submitted a legal application to the federal environment minister to stop the clearcutting at the entrance to the park. They will enlist the Species at Risk Act (SARA) to try to protect the caribou, which are listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
The community action group filing the application is made up of an assortment of organizations and individuals including the Wells Gray Gateway Protection Society, The Upper Clearwater Referral Group, B.C. Nature, and many other environmental and community groups from across the Interior B.C.
Trevor Goward, a professional lichenologist who studies the lichen the caribou eat to survive and a member of the Upper Clearwater Referral Group, said aside from one very small herd in the United States, mountain caribou only exist in Canada.
“I don’t think Canadians as a whole think it’s a good idea to just let species disappear,” said Goward. “By their actions, you have to say that the provincial government wants the caribou to die.”
Species at Risk Act
The SARA legislation was created in 2002 “to prevent endangered or threatened wildlife from becoming extinct or lost from the wild, and to help in the recovery of these species.”
“There’s a lot of big players that are now watching this,” said Erik Milton, the creator of the Wells Gray Gateway Protection Society. “Because if it works, it’s going to set a precedent, if it doesn’t work, it’s going to set a precedent.”
According to SARA, which was last updated in 2014, there are 5,800 of the species in Canada. They are divided into geographical groups spanning across B.C. and Alberta. Wells Gray-Thompson is listed as part of the southern group, who numbered only 133 in 2013. This is down from an estimated 336 in 1995. Both current and long-term population trends were listed as decreasing.
Goward said there are two ways the logging will drive the caribou to extinction. Firstly, the lichen essential to the caribou’s winter diet will be eradicated, as it grows on the trees. Secondly, young trees that grow in the aftermath of clearcutting produce desired habitat for moose and deer, which draw more predators to the area. These predators then feed on endangered caribou as a secondary source.
In 2014 the B.C. government began a recovery strategy for the Southern Mountain population of the Woodland Caribou. The executive summary echoed Goward, saying “during winter, Southern Mountain Caribou require large patches of mature and old forests with abundant lichens.”
As part of the strategy they mapped out three types of matrix ranges, which are like buffer zones. They are not designated critical habitat, but are considered in the report to be necessary for the survival of the caribou. All three types of ranges have experienced clearcutting and are designated for more.
Corinne Stavness, head media relations officer for Canfor, said in an email “The Provincial Government has done considerable work in recovery planning for mountain caribou, and the proposed harvest area is not identified as critical habitat. If it were, it would be excluded from the timber harvesting land base.”
Forest and Range Practices Act
In 2002 the B.C. Liberal government passed the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA), which eliminated the need for forestry companies to provide an environmental impact assessment. It also removed the Minister of Forestry’s power to withhold cutting permits. Following the act, forestry companies now only need to meet two requirements to obtain a cutting permit: an approved forest stewardship plan, and to respect the rights and titles of First Nations groups in the area.
“The Simpcw First Nations have a concern about environmental impact in the Upper Clearwater area, and we’re in the process of reviewing the application for timber harvesting,” said Chief Nathan Matthew of the Simpcw First Nations.
Matthew added the approval system is weak in terms of the requirements for the relationship that developers must have with First Nations.
“We would like to have a broader understanding and relationship with those corporations doing business in our territory.”
Despite the many complaints, Canfor has continued to state that their actions will not endanger the caribou.
“We (Canfor) firmly believe that our job is to work with communities and government to find a balance that protects the environment and protects jobs. We have hired experts who are leaders in their fields to advise our harvest plans,” said Stavness.
Milton argued the biologist Canfor used as a third party expert wasn’t qualified as they specialized in owls.
“Canfor has had five years to show that they care about this community, and they’ve consistently shown the opposite,” he said. “It’s important that people know we’re, for starters, not anti-logging” and added it should be treated as a secondary resource in the valley.
A government supported initiative in 2012 put Wells Gray Provincial Park forward as a candidate for an UNESCO World Heritage Site, which may now be jeopardized. The title is granted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization for significance either culturally or physically.
“The logging going on outside the park is killing the caribou inside the park,” said Goward.
Both Goward and Milton voiced their frustration with funding to the provincial government’s majority party. According to a list compiled by the Vancouver Sun, Canfor is the tenth largest donor to the BC Liberal Party, contributing over $850,000 to the party since 2005.
As the ‘gateway’ to Wells Gray Park, tourism has been a thriving addition to the economy of Clearwater. For the last two years the Clearwater Visitor Information Centre has been the busiest in B.C. for the months it’s open, with Victoria Harbour as the second.
“There is absolutely no reason that the community needs to choose between $54 million in forestry and $30 million in tourism activity— the region can and should have both,” said Stavness.
Wells Gray Park, 5,250 square kilometres of protected wilderness, is home to Helmcken Falls, Canada’s fourth highest waterfall, as well as 39 other named waterfalls.
Milton stated that Canfor promised the community the clear-cuts would not be visible from the Spaden viewpoint, a popular tourist site within the park which is also known as the “million dollar view.” He said, however that the cuts are able to be seen.
In response, Canfor admitted it was a mistake made by their visual specialist.
Stavness also said the harvesting in this area was to remove trees killed by pine beetles, and when this is the case there are no regulations on visual quality.
“However, understanding the concerns regarding the visual impacts, we did endeavor to meet visual quality objectives in the plan, though we could not and did not commit that the blocks would not be visible at all.”
The Federal Court has set a time limit for the minister of environment to make a decision on the case, which is set for mid-month.
Goward said if the federal government does not decide to halt the logging they will continue to fight it however they can, which may include suing the federal government.
“The case is so strong that if this doesn’t provoke that section of the Species At Risk Act, nothing will, and so then the act is meaningless,” said Goward.
“We’re one of the wealthiest nations in the entire world. If we can’t look after endangered species, then how could we expect anyone to?”
Timeline created by Jeana Mustain with information from https://1000clearcuts.ca