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Kananaskis centre of logging versus recreation tug of war

Opponents remain hopeful they are not standing on losing ground defending the West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain areas of Kananaskis against timber company West Fraser, but recognize it’s an uphill battle.

The value of recreation and ecological integrity far outweighs the product of logging in Kananaskis Country, argue recreational and conservation factions, adding fuel to their cause to halt a 738-hectare clearcut blanketing extensive trails and old-growth forest. 

Opponents of the plan remain hopeful they are not standing on losing ground defending the West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain areas of Kananaskis against timber company West Fraser, but recognize it’s an uphill battle.

“The number of people who are visiting Kananaskis nowadays is just so high that you have to think that the priority now for managing the area really has to be managing recreation and tourism and all of those things,” said Josh Killeen, conservation science and program manager at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta. “Timber supply shouldn’t really be the focus in somewhere like Kananaskis.”

West Fraser, formerly Spray Lake Sawmills, plans to harvest the area starting in fall 2026. Next winter, it intends to go ahead with another contentious logging plan in the Upper Highwood of Kananaskis.

At an open house hosted by the logging company at the Cochrane Ranchehouse Wednesday (May 8), intended to garner public input on how its plans for Moose Mountain and West Bragg Creek will be executed, Killeen was discouraged to see no changes presented in the plan for the Upper Highwood, despite similar public outcry and resulting consultation.

That plan intends to clear 1,100 hectares of timber, with much of that along the Highwood River and surrounding Loomis and McPhail creeks.

Opposition there echoes concerns in West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain for potential impact to trails and critical habitat to species at-risk, including bull trout, which are listed as threatened under the Federal Species at Risk Act. 

“Ranger Creek is the major one in this area and that is definitely home to bull trout, and some of the tributaries that feed into that come down from the Moose Mountain area,” said Killeen.

There are harvest blocks in the area that surround critical habitat for bull trout defined in the recovery plan created by the province to restore and protect the species.  

Operating ground rules, determined by forest management plans and other high-level plans such as the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, outline appropriate buffers from watercourses to protect watersheds, along with provincial and federal regulations. The number of watercourse crossings and where they will be located has yet to be determined for the logging area.

“There’s also some really special old growth stands in the Ranger Creek area, which is really important for biodiversity and for ecological function,” Killeen added. “So, there’s also a risk that we can lose some of these places in these harvest plans, as well.”

Vice-President of Canadian Woodlands for West Fraser, D’Arcy Henderson, said old growth in the area is primarily comprised of lodgepole pine estimated at between 80-120 years old. 

He said connectivity between water features and steep ground buffers should allow for setting aside some spaces for permanent retention, though, he could not say how much or where. 

What is cut, will be replaced by trees planted from a selection of seeds taken from the harvest area, Henderson said.

Part of the public consultation aspect of the plan is to discuss setbacks from trails to minimize disturbance and overall footprint on the landscape.

According to the current plan, harvest blocks and logging roads would overlap about seven kilometres of trails across over 300 kilometres of trails across the two areas, and what is impacted, would be restored following operations. 

There is potential to reduce trail overlap further based on ongoing consultation with the public and trail operator groups like Bragg Creek Trails and Moose Mountain Bike Trail Society. 

The area is popular for hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing, among other outdoor activities. Local volunteer organizations have invested $6.5 million and over 100,000 volunteer hours in creating the area trail network.

Henderson said, to date, there have been adjustments made to cut block boundaries and road layouts based on stakeholder conversations since the operating plan was introduced to the public in 2021. 

“We’ve got until 2026 before things really get active in that area from our standpoint, so let's make sure that key features are protected to a point that people are ... I'd like to say pleased, but at least recognize that trails will be kept in good condition and maintained, with a sense of serenity and wilderness still around through buffers and other accommodations,” he said. 

“I think that’s what success looks like to me coming out of consultation is that folks recognize that they’ve voiced their concerns, they’ve been listened to, and that it's now up to West Fraser to demonstrate that they've been heard and there's actual action taken to accommodate some of those concerns and questions and precise areas to try and protect, and that's on us now.”

Shaun Peter, president of Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation, attended West Fraser’s open house and said he felt the way the logging plan was presented was “disingenuous.”

“The trails are either in the cut block, the cut blocks are right over top of them, or the trails are on the cut block edge. They haven’t displayed – when they look at the amount of trail in a cut block – they haven’t shown that the trail or its edges are in that cut block,” he said. 

Peter said he’d like to see revenue from the Kananaskis Conservation Pass, which costs users $90 annually, put toward protecting the area from logging for generations to come and to fairly compensate West Fraser for its loss of lumber supply, if the plan were to be axed.

The Moose Mountain and West Bragg Creek areas represent a small fraction of West Fraser’s forestry management agreement, which gives the company rights to log 475,000 hectares along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Peter argued taking these areas off the map would impact the company little compared to its recreational value. 

He is pressuring the timber company to present the net value of its logging plan – where this area would not be logged again for at least another 100 years – so it can be compared to data from the province on the net present value of recreation the proposed logging area provides on an annual basis.

According to a 2021 study commissioned by the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta, Albertans spend $2.3 billion on crown land outdoor recreation trips annually and another $376 million on recreation equipment and related accessories for these trips.

In 2023, there were 4.7 million visitors to Kananaskis, according to the province. The West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain areas see about 1,000 visitors per day. 

“The recreation perspective is very, very clear,” said Killeen. “This has a huge value to people and a relatively low value as a timber harvest. It’s come to a point where it doesn’t make sense to have these things in the same place. And I would say that, from an ecological perspective, we’ve also reached a point where we can’t have everything, everywhere, all of the time.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

About the Author: Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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