St. Albert's white spruce forest is now safe from logging thanks to a deal between the city and a local developer.
City staff announced Tuesday they had made a deal with Genstar Development to protect the white spruce forest. Located east of Ray Gibbon Drive and next to the Sturgeon River, the forest is thought to be about 170 years old and has been threatened by development and vandalism.
The city has long had an interest in preserving the forest, says general manager of community and protective services Chris Jardine, but couldn't do much since the trees were on land owned by Genstar. "As long as it was in somebody else's hands, it could have been logged tomorrow."
Genstar agreed earlier this month to designate the white spruce forest as municipal reserve, Jardine says, which effectively makes it a city park. "It's city land now." Genstar also agreed to place a 50-metre vegetative buffer around the site to shield it from development of the proposed Timberlea subdivision.
The change will allow the city to take more steps to protect the forest, Jardine says, such as an explicit ban on vandalism or off-roading. It also lets local naturalists use the forest without trespassing. "It's fair game. Use it at your pleasure."
Mayor Nolan Crouse says he's thrilled by the deal, noting it has been in the works for about five years. "There aren't many urban forests this old anywhere and we've got to make sure we continue to protect it."
The white spruce forest is part of the vast wooded area that used to cover St. Albert centuries ago, says Peter Murphy, a retired forestry professor who has researched it extensively. This particular stand is 150 to 180 years old, he estimates, making it older than the city itself. One tree that blew down in 2002 was 161 years old.
This is one of the few remaining pre-settlement tree stands that remain along the Sturgeon, Murphy says, as most of the ones around the city were cleared during settlement. These trees likely survived destruction because they were too small to use during the 1860s and not needed when they grew up.
The Heritage Tree Foundation of Canada recognized the forest as a heritage tree site in 2008, but that did not give it any formal legal protection. Locals have reported vandalism incidents in the region such as off-roading, illegal logging and dumping.
City officials have barricaded the main roads to the forest, says Peter Demulder, a local birder who frequents the forest, which has greatly reduced vandalism. "I haven't seen any trucks or vehicles in there whatsoever lately."
But the forest is also overgrown, with fallen trees crowding its few paths.
Council hopes to make the forest a municipal historic area sometime next year, says Coun. Len Bracko. That designation, which Bracko proposed last year, would let council forbid the destruction, repair or alteration of the forest by anyone without its authorization.
The forest would be tough to preserve unless the city put in some designated trails, Murphy says. "The problem with spruce is although the trees are large, the roots spread out over the surface." Designated gravel or raised trails would discourage people from trampling those roots.
The forest could become a teaching centre along with the John E. Poole Interpretive Wetland to the south, Bracko suggests —an open air, walking classroom like the one at Rocky Mountain House. "In Rocky Mountain House, they don't even have a shelter."
The city will work out what to do with the forest through its future plans for Red Willow Park, Jardine says.