Concerns raised over new forest management agreement in Alberta

Several wilderness groups in the province have spoken up against a new agreement that will see a private company given more responsibility over forest management in southern Alberta. Eloise Therien has more on what this changes and why there are worries.

On Saturday, the government of Alberta announced a new forest management agreement (FMA) with Crowsnest Forest Products Ltd., a subsidiary of Spray Lake Sawmills based out of Cochrane, Alta.

The government expects over the 20-year-term, the agreement will see $32 million in increased payments to the province in the form of timber dues, holding and protection charge payments, and $225 million to Alberta’s GDP.

“I’m honoured to announce Alberta’s first forest management agreement since 2009,” Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen said in the release.

“Alberta’s foresters are the best in the world and help protect our 87 million acres of forests. Foresters develop 200-year forest plans, replant two trees for every one they harvest, reduce wildfire risk, combat tree pest and disease, and create good-paying jobs with long-term investments in our province.”

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The current forest management plan for the affected area is in effect until 2026, which covers approximately 3,500 square kilometres in southwestern Alberta near the British Columbia border.

Through an FMA, a company is given certain rights to Crown timber. It is permitted to establish, grow, harvest and remove the product, in exchange for various responsibilities within the boundary of the FMA, including forest management planning and creation, and maintenance of the forest inventory.

Crowsnest Forest Products will be in charge of producing future plans for the region, with the objective of “ensuring that the long-term objectives, principles and practices of sustainable forest management are maintained and consistent with the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan.”

According to the province, the company will still be regulated by the government and must abide by all mandates.

However, several wilderness groups are raising red flags over the lack of public consultation and potential detriments handing over responsibility to a private company could have.

Becky Best-Bertwistle, a southern Alberta conservation engagement coordinator with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), feels this announcement came out of nowhere, with no public involvement.

“It’s concerning because this is a really ecologically-important area that does need to be sensitively managed,” she explained.

“The government was previously doing this, and now it will be taken over by a private company and there will be less transparency.”

El Kulcsar, a member of Spray Lake Sawmills, said it’s important to remember not all responsibility will fall on the company’s shoulders.

“It’s not privatization of Crown land by any means,” he said. “The government of Alberta does retain all of its decision-making authority.”

However, Best-Bertwistle is still concerned the agreement could make it more difficult for changes to management plans and consultation with the public.

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Devon Earl, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), said while she understands the typical length of an FMA is 20 years, there should be room for change.

“It definitely would be better if this was on a shorter scale, so that when issues come up — like biodiversity concerns or environmental concerns — we need to be able to manage the plans adaptively and be addressing these concerns as they come up,” she explained.

“When we have something like a 20-year-long agreement, that can be hard to do.”

Earl is also adamant improvements need to be made when prioritizing all areas of sustainability.

“Forests don’t just provide timber; they provide habitat for wildlife, they provide water filtration, flood mitigation, biodiversity values, opportunities for recreation,” she said.

When asked about public consultation, Kulcsar told Global News Spray Lake Sawmills takes community and Indigenous involvement very seriously.

“We strive to achieve those balances between economic, social and ecological values, and public involvement, stakeholder involvement is very important to that process,” he said.

Global News reached out to the minister of Agriculture and Forestry regarding the concerns from CPAWS and AWA, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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