Caribou and forestry can co-exist

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I am writing in regards to the draft range plan recently released under Alberta’s Caribou Action Plan, which attempts to address the preservation of the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds located around Grande Cache. While no one can argue the importance of preserving the natural beauty and wonder of local wildlife around us, the Alberta government’s approach has me greatly concerned.

I have spent over 15 years working within the forestry industry, mostly in the Whitecourt, Fox Creek, and Swan Hills region. In that time, I have gained an in-depth understanding of forestry practices and an even deeper appreciation of the natural environment within which we work. Professional foresters like me and the forest companies who employ us understand that threatened species such as caribou require special consideration and that we, as stewards of the land, have an obligation to put in place measures to ensure their survival to the best of our abilities. The danger lies in specific measures outlined in the government’s draft range plan – steps that may or may not help caribou, but will certainly inflict economic harm on local families, communities and industries.

As it currently sits, the Little Smoky/A La Peche Draft Range Plan will cost jobs within my community and beyond. Local mills will be forced to cut shifts due to the reduced availability of fibre (logs). This, of course, will lead to other job losses, for contractors who work within the forest industry, in harvesting operations, tree planting and everything in-between. Lost jobs mean reduced expenditures in the community, affecting all businesses. The impacts don’t stop there. As the security of their fibre supply becomes more uncertain, mills and contractors start to forego purchasing or upgrading machinery. The result is reduced sales for larger manufacturers located in businesses as far away as Edmonton or Calgary. Implementing policies that result in job losses and reduced investment would seem unwise at this time, when so many families face real economic hardship due to the downturn in the oil and gas sector.

The provincial government is telling us that they have no choice, that if they don’t make these sweeping changes, the federal government could step in and shut down the forestry sector completely. The people I’ve talked to don’t believe that the federal government would go to those lengths. Yes, the province must develop a range plan under the federal Species at Risk Act, but why not work to develop one that protects jobs and caribou? The forestry industry has previously worked successfully with governments and ENGOs (Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations) to ensure that our logging practices minimize impacts on at-risk species. We can develop cut plans that provide natural habitat while ensuring the overall health of the forest ecosystem. In fact, with caribou numbers declining in areas like national parks, where no industrial activity takes place, some studies are showing that managed forests can be better for caribou while also maintaining healthy forests and reducing risks associated with insects and fire.

Our industry provides vital products you use every day – lumber to build your houses and pulp to make the newsprint on which this paper is printed. In making and distributing these products, the forest sector creates well paying, stable jobs that support communities like Whitecourt. Throughout Alberta, sustainably managed forests and renewable resource sector have a major role to play in supporting communities and strengthening and diversifying the economy. No one is saying that we need to disregard the needs of threatened species such as the caribou, just that we don’t need to sacrifice jobs to meet those goals.

A healthy forestry industry and a successful caribou conservation effort are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the Alberta government’s own Caribou Action Plan states, “Forest harvesting will still be sufficient to maintain the necessary fibre supply for existing facilities.” All I am asking is for the provincial government to live up to that pledge and ensure that all area mills have the fibre they need, to keep mills running and Albertans employed.

Conor O’Donnell, Whitecourt, Alta.

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