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8th June 2019
....continued from Part 1

What’s bad for the bears

Brian Horejsi is another transplant to the Okanagan region. After living and working for years in the Calgary area, he now calls Penticton home.

An expert in large-mammal behaviour, Horejsi was contracted by the Valhalla Wilderness Society to study grizzly bears in the Granby wilderness near Grand Forks. What he found was a watershed so pockmarked by roads and clear-cuts that it had become unsuitable habitat for an iconic wildlife species that defines wilderness in the province.

What baffles Horejsi is that those same activities occur regularly in community watersheds, even though such lands represent a tiny fraction of B.C.’s land base.

“I don’t think there’s any question they should be protected.” Horejsi says. “One-and-a-half percent is inconsequential when you look at the big picture. And the big picture is that those lands are of huge importance for the vast majority of people living in the province.”

“I don’t think there’s any question they should be protected.”

In 2014, B.C.’s independent Forest Practices Board released an investigation of forest practices in community watersheds. The board found that between 2006 and 2014, logging occurred in 131 community watersheds. But some community watersheds were hit far harder than others. Fully half of everything logged in those 131 cases occurred in just 10 watersheds. One of those unlucky 10 did not surprise Skalbania. It was the Trepanier.

The board found that the accelerated logging was a result of the provincial government encouraging companies to aggressively clear away forests that had been attacked by mountain pine beetles.

Skalbania called that finding particularly troubling. In the name of responding to one alleged disaster, the government and industry created another.

“They always have what they call these disasters. ‘Hey, you’ve got a disaster in your back yard and we’ve got to come and clean it up,’ ” Skalbania says. “But they’ve ruined my water.”

The Forest Practices Board found disturbing evidence that logging companies did not adequately consider what impact their cumulative actions would have on water resources. The board noted that the companies often relied on accredited professionals to address water concerns — yet of 31 professional assessments studied by the board, not one “fully evaluated” the “cumulative hydrological effects” of logging operations in community watersheds.

One year later, B.C.’s auditor general released an audit of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations’ efforts to manage cumulative impacts. The audit concluded that the government did not give the ministry “clear direction or the powers necessary to manage cumulative effects when deciding on natural resource use”. The audit also found that the government did not give the ministry “explicit” direction on how “to manage cumulative effects when authorizing the use of natural resources”.

Putting First Nations in the hot seat

Like many First Nations, the Westbank First Nation watched for decades as the B.C. government turned over vast areas of forest to logging companies while failing to do the same for Indigenous peoples.

“A lot of our members had to go up north to find work,” says Dave Gill, a forester and general manager of Ntityix Resources, a Westbank First Nation-owned company.

After much effort, the Nation received a pilot licence in the mid 2000s that eventually became its own long-term community licence in 2009. That licence, combined with an anticipated woodland licence, means the nation has rights to log a combined 80,000 cubic metres of timber per year — enough to keep roughly 30 members employed.

But the lands the government granted Westbank First Nation forestry rights to lay within a number of community watersheds including the Bear Creek, Trepanier, Peachland, Rose Valley and Power’s Creek areas.

That decision meant that in addition to being logged by the First Nation-owned company, Peachland’s watersheds also faced impacts from logging and roads built by the two largest logging and milling companies in the region — Tolko and Gormon Bros. — as well as BC Timber Sales, essentially an arm of the provincial government that auctions tracts of forest to companies that then do the logging.

The road to water ruin

In its investigation, the Forest Practices Board flagged concerns with logging roads, in particular.

When water courses down roadsides and ditches, it transports large amounts of sediment. That muddied or “turbid” water increases the risk “that pathogens from wild and domestic animals (e.g. livestock) and human sources will attach to the fine sediment particles,” the board concluded.

“When water from the watershed reaches the intake, it must be treated so it is safe for human consumption. If the water is highly turbid, the treatment of water through ultraviolet light, chlorination, and/or filtration is less effective.”

Over the years, Skalbania has learned to appreciate better than most what that means. Water treatment does not guarantee water protection. If you fail to protect your watersheds, you increase the risk that water cannot be properly treated.

In March 2017, a slope below a logging road used by Gormon Bros. failed. It blocked the main creek supplying Peachland with its water. A new channel had to be dug for the stream so that the water could once again flow to the water plant. The slide and rechanneling of the creek meant months of bad water and boil-water orders.

In November of that year, local residents had had enough. They filed a complaint with the Forest Practices Board alleging that decades of logging and road-building had damaged their watershed.

Skalbania and others believe that the cumulative effect of all that logging degraded their water and that the simplest, most effective way to improve the situation is to halt the logging all together.

“If taking the tiny 400 square kilometres of our two Peachland watersheds from the entire provincial Allowable Annual Cut in order to protect the health of our ecosystems and in order to secure our water quality, quantity and timing of flow is not doable,” Skalbania says, “then the entire forestry management system in the province is flawed, fragile, a house of cards.”

The Narwhal contacted the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development to ask if B.C.’s chief forester has powers to lower logging rates also known as the “Allowable Annual Cut” in areas of the province to protect community water supplies.

In an emailed response, the ministry’s communications director Vivian Thomas said: “The chief forester cannot make land use or forest management practice changes where other decision makers have the statutory authority to do so.”

One of the most important “statutory authorities” is the Minister of Forests himself. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson can provide “explicit” direction to the chief forester and others on how to manage cumulative impacts.

Such explicit direction could have a big impact on how much more forest is logged in Peachland’s watersheds in the coming years, including logging that is under the provincial government’s direct control through BC Timber Sales.

In the next five years, Donaldson’s ministry says, 240 hectares of forest is slated to be logged in the Peachland watershed through BC Timber Sales timber auctions. That is six times more logging than has ever happened in the watershed under the auspices of such auctions.

In the meantime, the logging companies that historically did the lion’s share of logging in the watersheds have all approached Skalbania and others saying they want to log more as well. But with a twist. Rather than clear-cutting away all the trees, they now propose to selectively log some forests. The logging will allegedly protect the community from wildfires.

Talk and log

Smith says selective logging is precisely what should have happened all along. As a young man working in the sawmill, Smith knew that the big fir logs running through the mill where he worked all originated from selectively logged forests. Ironically, there was nothing altruistic about the industry’s choice then or now.

Selective logging has been practised in the continent’s interior fir forests for a century. Such forests tend to be filled with fir trees of differing ages and heights. Selectively logging some of the bigger trees while leaving others behind to grow bigger is just a smart thing to do.

If the industry had stuck with that plan and not embarked on accelerated clear-cutting of the region’s pine forests as well, things may have been okay, Smith says.

Effectively, what the industry now says is that it will clear-cut fewer pine forests but rapidly increase the selective logging of fir trees. It’s a proposal that leaves Skalbania feeling cold.

“Tolko, Gormon and the Westbank First Nations have all come to us to say: ‘Hey, let’s sit down at the table. Let’s talk. We want to selectively log your watershed.’ Well, we’ve been asking for selective logging for years. Some of us have been asking for it for the last 30 years. And they weren’t interested. They told us many times to our face that it’s just not affordable.”

The year before the big slides that underscored the fragility of their community watersheds, Peachland’s mayor, Cindy Fortin, and her fellow councillors voted in favour of sending a resolution to the upcoming Union of BC Municipalities conference, the annual gathering of municipal-government leaders from across the province.

The resolution noted that “water is a public trust” and that protecting and controlling water resources “requires adequate tools to enable local authorities to enact measures for protection of watersheds”.

The resolution, which passed, called on the provincial Ministry of Environment to “expedite” giving local governments more powers to control events in their watersheds, including powers to issue logging approvals.

But if local residents thought that resolution signalled the council’s support for a halt to logging in the watersheds, they were mistaken.

On the recent World Water Day tour of the watersheds, Fortin told a local television station that a “moratorium” on logging was far too “lofty” a goal. “Collaboration” between logging companies was what was needed, she said.

In the meantime, the resolution passed by the Union of BC Municipalities is in limbo. According to a brief submitted to Peachland’s council in August 2017, the Ministry of Environment will not be acting on Peachland’s resolution any time soon.

“The ministry states its work will ‘take several years to accommodate the broad and balanced engagement with those who may be affected,’ ” the brief stated.

To Skalbania’s ears, that sounds an awful lot like a recipe for more talking and more logging.

“We cannot afford to wait two or three more years,” she says. “What will be left?”