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Perspectives On My Back Yard

October 1, 2019
Stew Coles
An aerial photo of a lake and forest.

Perspectives On My Back Yard

CPAWS SK Executive Director Gord Vaadeland shares his personal insights on competing interests in the forest landscape. 

Because of what I do and who I work for, I am often asked for my perspective on the issues surrounding forestry operations in the area between Big River and Prince Albert National Park. 

As someone who has worked on issues such as these for over a decade now, I have some thoughts about how this is all playing out. I grew up in this area and care deeply about it. I also have friends on both sides of this discussion, so it has been a long process to sort through my thoughts and figure out which are emotional, and which are rational. 

In recent months, many legitimate concerns have been raised by many concerned people. It’s great to see that the province and industry alike are being held accountable and are being asked to do a better job addressing these concerns. It’s also important, however, that those in opposition to the logging use credible, accurate and defensible arguments. The briefest glance at any of the media surrounding the issue shows that this is not happening as it should.

Many of those involved are cherry picking information to use to their advantage, and it has led to the circulation of misinformation on the subject. When you couple this with minds and ears that are quickly closing to new perspectives and  to learning more, we find ourselves heading into a situation where collaborative solutions are going to be harder and harder to find. I’m seeing ‘with us or against us’ mentality starting to build, and that isn’t productive for anyone.

Many people care about the boreal forest, but tend not to get involved until their backyard is in play. This involvement often brings worried citizens to CPAWS, asking us how we can support the protection of their special place. That’s great! We are happy to have these conversations and be a part of protecting more and more of Canada’s public lands. CPAWS works across the boreal forest, often in partnership with First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities to protect vast areas and help conserve species at risk and other values. But these conversations can also be risky for us. Sometimes, CPAWS and the species we work to protect (like Woodland Caribou) end up being the bad guys: both to the companies who want easy access to trees and to locals who want to see their backyard protected above all else, including caribou. 

Let me preface my thoughts on the issue by saying that I fully support efforts to better protect this area and everything it represents, from wild bison habitat to a thriving tourism economy to a very useful ecological buffer for Prince Albert National Park. However, despite all the ecological value that this area holds, this is more a discussion about economics than about ecology.

Let me explain:

Many proponents for protecting this area are using an “intact forest” argument to justify their position, correctly stating that intact forests support a variety of things from species at risk to local economic interests. Ironically, that same “intactness” argument is what the forest companies are using to justify harvest in this area, as they also correctly state that this helps them stay out of areas that are significantly more intact and important for caribou (a species whose habitat they are legally required to protect). Ecologically, it makes sense to focus forest harvest in areas where the human footprint is already high, and likely to remain high due to the permanence of roads and the presence of other human disturbances or infrastructure. Protection efforts generally tend to focus on truly intact areas that have fewer or no roads, power lines, etc. 

One example would be the 400,000 ha of forests and wetlands we are working to protect in the Saskatchewan River Delta. Another would be the 500,000 ha of land in the traditional territory of the Athabasca Denesuline that we are working to protect along the Northwest Territories border. These vast areas are devoid of human development, save a few First Nations or Metis owned cabins accessible only by boat or snowmobile. 

This is also how we work to protect caribou habitat. We need large areas with minimal human disturbance in order to save the species. Forestry is human disturbance. So is tourism and recreation infrastructure. So is agriculture. So are roads and trails. Thus, relative to other places in the boreal forest, this area is highly disturbed, with or without forestry. And due to the permanence of these factors, it will remain so. 

It is a feature of modern forestry that the harvest blocks are planned using modeling software to fall within certain parameters. One of these parameters is to drive harvest towards areas that already have a higher human footprint. In other words, this area has been identified for harvest specifically due to its lack of pure intactness. 

But if you flip the coin and you’ll see that the companies and the province aren’t putting all options on the table either.

It’s often true that consolidating harvest events into specific areas is better for caribou because they can leave other, larger pieces of caribou habitat unharvested, and that this practice also more closely (but never exactly) emulates natural disturbances, like fire. Usually, I would argue that small harvest blocks or selective harvesting are worse from an ecological perspective, as this forces disturbance to be spread over the landscape, requiring more infrastructure like roads, basically sealing a fate of extinction for caribou. These practices are also less effective at emulating natural disturbances.

However, in this case, other options could be considered. Things like fire smart or community informed planning that encourages forest-based activities designed to avoid areas of high social and cultural value are all viable, and they can be designed in such a way that they will support all interests. These types of exceptions have been made elsewhere and could be made here as well. 

To arrive at a solution, we need to acknowledge what this discussion is really about: the competing needs and interests of the humans involved and which of these interests should be given priority.

The companies want these trees because they are near to the mill. It’s less about caribou, or emulating fire, or consolidating harvest events, and more about economics. On the other side, those who are now raising their voices in opposition are doing so because this place holds deep value to them. These values range from economic to cultural to spiritual. This is a beautiful place! That’s why the tourism industry is so important to the region. Any impacts to the tourism sector and the ability for local people to enjoy the area should be heavily considered. But in making this argument, we can’t ignore the reality that non-forestry human activities are also consumptive and can have a significant cumulative impact on the forest. 

There’s nothing wrong with having this discussion based on what’s best for the local community because it’s on this basis that the community has the strongest argument. In fact, some measure of success has already been attained on the ground, with the companies now agreeing to leave certain areas unharvested. 

It’s worth noting that each concession that has been requested and granted to date is based on eye appeal, not habitat protection or other ecological reasons. While the discussion usually starts with both sides exchanging ecological arguments, when the question “where should we harvest?” gets asked, the answer is always “some place I can’t see it.” This has little to do with ecology and a lot to do with human interests. 

It is my hope moving forward that we can have a productive, fact-based conversation that can lead us to a collaborative solution. And I invite all of those concerned with protecting this beautiful area to also join CPAWS in a broader discussion around protecting vast areas of boreal forest across Canada. 

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Gord Vaadeland, CPAWS SK Executive Director

Gord Vaadeland is the Executive Director of CPAWS Saskatchewan and former rancher. Having spent most of his life working with wild bison in central Saskatchewan (among many other wilderness conservation initiatives), the environment has been near and dear to Gord’s heart for his entire life. When he isn’t advocating for the protection of Canadian wilderness with community and government partners nation-wide, he can usually be found enjoying Saskatchewan’s natural beauty. You can follow Gord on social media here, here, and here.