CPAWS Southern Alberta and the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) are among those surprised by the quiet signing of a forest management area (FMA) late last week between the Alberta government and Crownest Forest Products, a subsidiary of Spray Lake Sawmills.

Becky Best-Bertwistle, CPAWS Southern Alberta conservation engagement coordinator, says the signing was done without public consultation and before a footprint plan of the 3,500 sq. km area was completed, as required by the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan.

She explains the footprint plan would assess the Eastern Slopes region's environmental, social, and economic values and the impact of the existing human industrial footprint.

Best-Bertwistle points to a report from the Alberta Chapter of the Wildlife Society that looks at the current cumulative effects of land-use in the region, including forestry. The report indicates that all the combined land-uses will impact water flows and present substantial risk to threatened native trout species in the southeastern slopes if industrial activity continues as business as usual.   

“Given the steep declines in native trout populations and increased concerns about water quality and flows, particularly in the face of climate change, it is now the time to evaluate if and where forestry happens on this landscape. Instead, the government has chosen to embed industrial forestry for the next 20 years,” she says.

Now that the ink is dry on the agreement, she believes the government must ensure the company follows regulations.

"We know on a number of occasions, there have been some shortfallings when it comes to them following environmental regulations," says Best-Bertwistle. "Specifically, they've destroyed critical habitat for a threatened species and they haven't faced any consequence for that. I know the ink is dry on this deal, and there's no changing it at this point, but we have to make sure the government is holding the company to account moving forward."

She's referring to an incident in 2018 at Silvester Creek, which is designated critical habitat for west slope cutthroat trout. A logging road owned and maintained by Spray Lakes Sawmills washed out and released a large amount of sediment into the creek during the spring spawning season, and is believed to have wiped out the species in this creek.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials made a site visit and left it up to the province to pursue charges/fines.

Best-Bertwistle says the area where the new FMA is located is home to several streams that are critical habitat for the same species.

Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) is left questioning Alberta’s commitment to sustainable forests.

“The Government of Alberta maintains that forest management agreements ensure commitment to sustainability and biodiversity,” says Devon Earl, AWA conservation specialist. “This is very questionable. A genuine commitment to sustainability and biodiversity requires forest management to be ecosystem-based, not timber-centric.”

In May 2020, the government's forest action plan called for an annual allowable cut increase of 13 per cent. It believes the increased cut is purely an economic decision and does not further ecosystem values.

Earl says the government never responded to their questions on harvesting areas that are ecologically sensitive or difficult to recover, such as old-growth forests, riparian areas, or steep slopes.