Plans to clear-cut popular trail near Bragg Creek prompts tourism and environmental concerns
Outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists are raising concerns over a proposal to clear-cut two areas known for their popular cycling and hiking trails just west of Bragg Creek.
Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) has plans in the works to log a total of 900 hectares in the West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain areas in 2026. The trail networks, which cover the equivalent of 833 soccer fields, were built on Crown land through donations and volunteer labour.
Critics like Shaun Peter, who promotes tourism with the Bragg Creek & Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation group, say these plans should be thrown out entirely or drastically changed.
"For Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS), this is a tiny harvest for them – they have tons of area – but for recreation, this is a huge harvest covering a big portion of what is one of the most popular recreation areas in all of Alberta," he said.
"We understand SLS has also submitted an application for haul roads as well, and that's always been part of the mitigation work we've done to prevent haul roads from having a major impact on the trails."
SLS was given the right to log the area, following the adoption of a Forest Management Plan (FMP) that it signed with the province in 2021.
Peter acknowledges that agreement, but says he finds it ironic that Alberta's UCP government is charging visitors a $90 fee to access the Kananaskis, Bragg Creek and Bow Valley areas.
He calls it "economically short sighted."
"With the Kananaskis pass being brought in, we thought it would be treated more like a park than just regular Crown land, so it was a bit of a surprise and disappointing when we saw this," Peter added.
"Thousands of volunteer hours have been spent building this area where nothing has existed before, and now the government is profiting $10 million per year, in part due to these trails. So now we're just going to see these trails wiped out on top of that?"
Shaun Peter looks at map of where clear-cut is planned.Rick Courtney is an avid hiker and cyclist in the Bragg Creek area who agrees that cutting down trees on his favourite trails would result in major upheaval from outdoor enthusiasts.
"When you strip the forest off, and you're on the trails, it's really degrading the whole experience and that's a big part of it, going through nature, and when nature is 'clear cut,' it's hot, there's not much for birds or wildlife," said Courtney.
"Mentally, it doesn't give you the same rush. It's a major change in the habitat, this area has lots of different species of wildlife and certain species might benefit but the vast majority disappear.
'IT WOULD GREATLY AFFECT MY BUSINESS'
The Tourism Industry Association of Alberta (TIAA) found that there was $376 million in spending on outdoor equipment and accessories, with outdoor recreation contributing $2.8 billion to the gross domestic product of the province.
According to the study commission by TIAA and 19 outdoor recreation groups, the average Alberta outdoor enthusiast will spend $258 per day trip and $757 per overnight trip.
Around 0.8 per cent of Alberta's GDP is accounted for by recreational trips to Crown lands, and the employment rate resulting from this spending is 6.1 times higher than both the forest and logging industries.
Jeff Woodgate owns Alberta 66 Mountain Biking in Bragg Creek, offering shuttle services, guiding and coaching for all ability levels.
He says clear-cutting on the Moose Mountain or West Bragg Creek trail system would significantly impact his business.
"The other night, we were doing some lessons here with some folks, and there was another event with a number of other groups – probably 1,000 to 1,500 people out here mountain biking on any given night," Woodgate said.
"This is where the trail system is, and there is the potential that it would greatly affect my business to the point that people would no longer want to come out here and ride, and therefore, we would not have a sustainable business."
SPRAY LAKE SAWMILLS COMMITS TO CONSULTATION, SUSTAINABLE FORESTRY INITIATIVES
On May 3, SLS held an open house in Cochrane with the intention of ensuring lawmakers and the general public that it would cut responsibly in the West Bragg Creek area.
Ed Kulcsar, the company's vice-president of woodlands, says SLS logging plans in the area are always subject to change based on public consultation efforts, which he says will take place several times between now and 2026.
He notes that more open houses are scheduled in 2024, 2025 and 2026, adding that regular communication has also taken place with active trail groups.
Kulcsar also touted SLS as having a solid track record of being able to integrate its harvests around trails.
"Prior to approval by the provincial government, this plan had extensive public and stakeholder involvement in 2020-21, including the sharing of those timber stands selected in the Bragg Creek area," Kulcsar said.
"The operational planning process in the area has not begun; there is nothing imminently planned for the area, no road approvals requested."
Operational planning is scheduled to begin in 2024 for a tentative harvest in 2026.
SLS says that a map showing its logging footprint covering the trails of Fullerton Loop, Race of Spades, and Strange Brew will all be part of the consultation process.
As for sustainability efforts, Kulcsar pointed to SLS following the 'highest standards of forestry management' through its annual Forestry Initiative audits.
He says work with the government is underway, that his team recognizes the area is on Crown land and that the province approves of the operations process.
"SLS is following the provincial planning process. The timber stands identified here are those selected for harvest as part of the modeled, 200-year sustainable harvest contained in our 2021 Forest Management Plan," he said.
"This is the opportunity to shape the harvest design and timing of operations; to work out the integration details."
An undated photo showing clear-cutting in Alberta. (Bragg Creek & Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation)While the commitment to sustainable efforts is welcomed, people like Peter are still skeptical.
He's concerned about the impact clear-cutting could have on fire hazards in the Bragg Creek area.
"In discussion with Spray Lake Sawmill, this is not going to be a fire-smart cut, which means they will not be removing the slash or stumps, and that results in leaving a lot of fuel behind," he said.
"As well, Bragg Creek is on the 10-year anniversary of the flood, and any harvesting effects the amount of water retention in the forest and runoff.
PROVINCE WAITING FOR OPERATIONAL PLANS
A spokesperson for Alberta Forestry, Parks and Tourism says the province has yet to officially signoff on the SLS plan to log the West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain timber blocks.
"It is important to note that timber disposition holders like Spray Lake Sawmills are required to submit annual operating plans to receive authority to harvest timber on Crown land," Heather Kaszuba told CTV News in an emailed statement.
"As the proposed harvesting in the West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain areas would not occur for several years, an annual operating plan has not been received and permission to harvest has not been granted."
The province does recognize that in 2021, Spray Lake Sawmills submitted a Forest Management Plan to the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism after "extensive consultation."
In the statement, the ministry also added that forestry is a sustainable practice and that timber disposition holders are subject to strict operating rules.
"The Forest Management Plan includes future harvesting operations in the West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain areas. Spray Lake Sawmills will involve the public in their planning process. This involvement will be in addition to the engagement that has already occurred with stakeholders on the Forest Management Plan."
"Approved forest harvesting in the West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain area will be consistent with the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan."
REGULATIONS OVERLY FAVOUR INDUSTRY SAYS ALBERTA WILDERNESS ASSOCIATION
In 2020, it was revealed through PACs (third party advertisers) that SLS had donated $30,283 to the UCP.
Shortly after being elected, the UCP gave SLS an agreement to log 3,511 kilometres between Waterton and Kananaskis. This was the first Forest Management Agreement (FMA) in 12 years and planned for 33 per cent more logging on all existing FMAs across the province.
The province said this agreement would bring in $32 million to its coffers and add $225 million to Alberta's GDP.
Devon Earl, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), says that FMA and other logging regulations have overly favoured industry and failed to acknowledge public environmental concerns.
"Forestry companies aren't required to make any changes based on what they hear and there's not enough participation or transparency and that's one of the things that really needs to change," she said.
"In general, when we have engaged and we've put a lot of time into providing detailed submissions and feedback, we haven't seen any meaningful changes come out
Earl added that the logging qualifications and commitments to sustainable forestry practices mentioned by SLS are also "largely meaningless."
She says stands of Alberta timber that are left unharvested for environmental purposes are oftentimes too small to ensure proper biodiversity and sustainability for the region.
"The provincial regulations are not enough and they're not adequate. They're not based on science in a lot of cases, and then as well, a lot of forestry companies will pursue third-party forestry certifications as a way to show how sustainable they are to the public.
"Unfortunately, the majority of forestry companies in Alberta are being certified by a certification standard that is really just greenwashing. it's not providing any actual meaningful outcomes of sustainability at all."