Sarah Elmeligi, Alberta NDP Banff-Kananaskis MLA and Critic for Tourism, Sports and Recreation wants the provincial government to pump the brakes on clear-cut logging in West Bragg Creek, Highwood Pass and Horse Lake/Aura Sand Hills in the Ghost.
Elmeligi said although logging in these areas is currently legal under the Forestry Management Agreement, the region, its use and its draw for outdoor enthusiasts has evolved dramatically in recent years, and since the situation has changed, more consultation is needed before Spray Lake Sawmills goes ahead with plans to start logging this winter.
“I believe the government must immediately consult with all affected communities, and reconsider whether logging is really the best use of these three wooded areas,” she said in a statement released this week.
She added that the pandemic drove visitors to the region in unprecedented numbers, and they’re still coming.
Since 2011, over $6 million and 85,000 volunteer hours have been invested to build the internationally renowned trail network. In 2020, 293,000 visitors recreated on West Bragg Creek trails and now those trails are slated for logging in 2026.
“Another big change is that the UCP government is now charging people to enter Kananaskis Country, $90 for a so-called Conservation Pass,” she said. “How can the province charge a fee to conserve a natural area, and then open that same area to commercial logging? This landscape cannot be everything to everyone. We need a more thorough public consultation to define our communities’ priorities and evidence of how that input has influenced management actions.” Several trail organizations including Moose Mountain Bike Trail Society and Friends of Kananaskis have received funding from the Kananaskis Conservation Pass (KCP) for trail work in these areas.
Shaun Peter of Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation (BCKOR) said Elmeligi’s stance on the issue is in lockstep with his organization’s efforts to have a more open and complete public consultation with the province and Cochrane’s Spray Lake Sawmills.
He said it doesn’t make a lot of financial sense to invest so much in trails only to have them damaged by provincially-sanctioned clearcut logging.
Bragg Creek Trail Association has been granted $300,000 annually for three years from the conservation passes to build and maintain trails.
Peter explained that environmental policies governing competing activity in the Kananaskis area worked fine for a few years, while recreational use was relatively light and there was some industrial activity going on at the same time.
But that was then and this is now.
“Now the trails in West Bragg and Moose Mountain are confined to such a small area, there’s so many trails, it just doesn’t make sense to have logging there,” he said. “There comes a point where you have to acknowledge that – you can’t have everything on one small section of land.”
He said the West Bragg trails are one of the highest recreational use areas outside of provincial parks in Alberta.
“Rather than giving permits to log that area, we need to have more discussion about what our goal is, and what’s possible in that region,” Peter said.
He said he’s open to living with whatever suggestions come out of a renewed public consultation. His ideal solution would be for the area slated for logging to be designated as protected for recreation. Currently just the parking lot at the West Bragg trailheads site is protected.
On a broader scale, Peter said it’s time the provincial government considered the importance of all of Kananaskis, not just the highly-developed recreational areas like West Bragg Creek.
“It’s such a small area for harvesting in the province, it would be quite easy for the provincial government to say we’re not going to harvest in Kananaskis – full stop,” he said. “It would have an effect on the logging industry but it wouldn’t be insurmountable – they have a huge area outside of Kananaskis.”
He added it would make sense strictly from a financial perspective, as the income from tourism in Kananaskis would far outstrip the amount of money going into provincial coffers from logging licenses.
Peter also said he’s hopeful the new owners of Spray Lake Sawmills (West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd., from BC) will be receptive to hearing what locals residents have to say about logging in West Bragg.
In an interview with The Eagle, Elmeligi said it’s always difficult when conflicting uses are imposed on the same forested areas.
“There's a lot of people that have a vested interest in those landscapes and what we're seeing right now is that the same trees have been promised to different people for different reasons, and that is bound to create a user conflict,” she said.
“It doesn't mesh together so what we're seeing is really rapidly increasing recreation in these areas, mostly since the pandemic, and we're still stuck in this pattern of trying to make this landscape everything to everybody,” she explained.
“You can't do everything everywhere, all the time.”
That’s why Elmeligi is pushing for more consultation, and she says it can and should happen right away, before logging starts up in the Highwood Pass area this winter.
“Where is the greatest economic value in these logging areas in Kananaskis?” she asked. “The greater value of the land, economically and socially and culturally, is with the forest that is available for tourism and recreation.”,” she said.
“The public is clearly very upset,” she added.. “There's still time to launch a thorough public consultation and reflect the results of that in the planning for logging in these areas, but the government needs to prioritize that and act now.”
Elmeligi said added that it's incumbent on the provincial government to make sure the input from any consultation is reflected in how the landscape is managed.
Another aspect of what hasn’t happened to date, she explained, is a need for meaningful Indigenous consultation.
“First Nations leaders all expressed concern to me that that they did not have the resources or the support to conduct site visits and proper assessments of medicinal plants or medicines or artifacts that might be disturbed by these logging activities,” she said.
The two other main players in the debate do not sound receptive to Elmeligi’s plea.
The province said further consultation is the company’s responsibility, and the company says that is beyond their scope.
Press secretary Pam Davidson provided a statement to The Eagle on behalf of Mminister of Fforestry and Pparks Todd Loewen, stating: “Our government negotiates forest management agreements with companies for the right to establish, grow, harvest and remove timber in exchange for responsibilities that include increasing forest resilience, encouraging biodiversity and ensuring the replanting of harvested areas. They are also responsible for conducting extensive consultation with local communities and organizations. The agreements are publicly available online.”
Spray Lake Sawmills vice-president of woodlands Ed Kulcsar sent The Eagle the following statement:
“The consultation being requested by the MLA is beyond our scope as a forest company. She appears to be requesting the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) be discarded and the Province start over.
“The SSRP was developed through a multi-year, multi-stakeholder process and approved in 2014 with amendments in 2017 and 2018. The SSRP established, among other things, where commercial timber harvesting is permitted and where it is not permitted. Approximately 30 per cent% of the forest region was zoned as mixed-use where timber harvesting is permitted and 70 per cent% zoned as Parks and Protected areas where timber harvesting is not permitted.
“Our harvesting operations are fully within the mixed-use area consistent with the SSRP,” Kulscar concludedP. “SLS consultations focus on how sustainable forestry will be managed strategically (Forest Management Plan) and operationally (General Development Plan, Annual Operating Plan) and not on the broader question of where forestry should be permitted. More detailed information can be found on our website www.spraylakesawmills.com.”