Residents opposed to proposed logging road in Fraser headwaters

A proposed logging road through a pristine Robson Valley watershed that hosts endangered chinook salmon, acts as a wildlife corridor, and feeds the Fraser River headwaters, has reignited a longstanding campaign by local residents to get the entire Raush River area protected from development. 

The Raush is a wildlife corridor between Wells Gray Park and the upper Fraser River, an intact valley, and the biggest, intact tributary to the Fraser that’s not protected, said Roy Howard of Fraser Headwaters Alliance, a volunteer-run conservation group based in Dunster that has advocated for decades that the Raush watershed be fully-protected. 

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Currently, two isolated patches of the Raush are Protected Areas, totalling 6,667 hectares of the 101,000-hectare watershed. 

“There's never been logging,” Howard said. “It's definitely old growth in the valley bottoms. It's still intact, that's the main thing.” 

But that may soon change. Maps distributed to Raush stakeholders and shared with the Goat, show a proposal by Prince George-based Carrier Lumber to build roads through one of the protected areas to access unprotected forests further into the watershed. 

Current land use terms restrict the protected areas from resource development, but allow road-building. 

The potential development has triggered push back from some local residents.

“What are they protected from if they can still log them? Or go through them to log?” said Devanee Cardinal, whose family runs Cardinal Ranch in Dunster, and owns half of the private land in the Raush watershed. 

The largest timber licensee operating in the 1.46 million-hectare Robson Valley Timber Supply Area (TSA), Carrier Lumber, holds tenure on the Crown land in the Raush and much of the TSA, which spans from west of Crescent Spur to east of Valemount. 

Despite repeated requests for an interview, Carrier representatives declined to comment on the road building plans.

“The concern is that Carrier (Lumber) puts in a logging road and it opens up access, and then, of course, logs out a big area of the headwaters,” Cardinal said. Cardinal’s family has lived in the Dunster area for 55 years, ever since her grandparents brought horses by train from California to homestead in the Raush. The family still has 1,500 acres of deeded land plus additional leased land for grazing their horses and cattle.The proposed roads won’t access their land, which is located across the Raush River and some distance away.

“Historically, my family were hunters, cattlemen, ranchers. This generation is a lot more environmental in their concerns,” said Cardinal. “Now, we're more interested in protecting it.”

Many people living in the vicinity of the Raush hunt or work in the logging industry, but are still opposed to development, she said. Cardinal has received calls and emails from local residents against development in the Raush. 

“Roads are always the beginning of the end,” said Michelle Connelly, director of Conservation North, a volunteer-run organization that advocates for wildlife and habitat protection. “Once you punch a road into a place, you get all sorts of motorized activity. Roads enable all the stuff that you need to protect these places from.” 

The fact that the Upper Raush is basically inaccessible is part of the value of the place, she said. “There are so few places like that now.”

From a conservation perspective, a larger, intact landscape is more valuable than several small patches of the same amount of land, Connelly said. A bigger area provides continuous range for large animals and reduces the “edge effect”—the ecological deterioration that occurs around the edges of a protected area. 

Edges are exposed to altered light, soil, humidity, temperature and wind, which reduces seedling recruitment, increases tree mortality, and changes complex interactions between all living organisms in the ecosystem, according to a study led by McGill University researchers. Because the edge effect can extend as deeply as several hundred metres into a forest, scientists have assessed, the fewer the edges, the healthier the overall protected area will be.

“There’s already a park complex down there with the Bowron and Wells Gray (provincial parks),”  Connelly said. “It’s just logical to connect this piece of intact wilderness to those areas.”

In an interview last fall, Carrier Lumber president Bill Kordyban expressed frustration with the changing demands for protected areas. 

“There's been this war in the woods for years and years,” he said. “Once an area gets protected, then the focus goes on to another area. Then that area gets protected, and the focus gets moved to another area.”

At the time, Kordyban was supportive of a land use planning concept recommended by an independent old growth review which suggested three potential categories of forestry management: fully protected from development; managed for multiple uses, and open to industrial logging. 

“Let's delineate those areas, so we're not sitting, fighting about them,” he said. “I think that would be an awesome outcome.”

In an emailed response to a request for an interview on land use modernization, Susan Yurkovich, CEO of the BC Council of Forest Industries (COFI), said the forestry industry values B.C.’s commitment to conservation, but also values the jobs and economic opportunities it provides. People in industry know a periodic review of forestry policy is necessary, Yurkivich said, adding that an “evidence-based, balanced, province-wide strategy” would be in everyone’s interest.

The protected areas in the Raush were designated 22 years ago as part of the Robson Valley Land Resource Management Plan (LRMP) process. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the province was divided into LRMPs and round tables were assembled from local land user groups to negotiate each plan. The LRMPs typically took several years to complete.

The amount of protected land in each LRMP varied, but provincially, 12 per cent was set as the maximum. In the 1.4-million-hectare Robson Valley LRMP, participants were told 20.4 per cent could be protected. The catch was that both the Mount Robson and Terry Fox provincial parks counted towards that total, and together, took up 15.5 per cent of the area, leaving 69,000 hectares, or 4.9 per cent of the land base, for new protected land. 

“We wanted to protect the whole Raush,” said Howard, a round table participant. 

In the end, 10 new protected areas were created, including the Upper and Lower Raush areas. 

“Of course, industry was not happy because they didn't want to give up anything, and the conservationists were not happy because we wanted an awful lot more,” Howard said.

Since then, the Raush watershed situation has hung in a sort of uneasy limbo. Howard and other conservationists in the north have made a few low-key, unsuccessful attempts to get more of the area protected, while Carrier has logged elsewhere. Until now.

The latest move to develop the Raush comes at the same time the Province is reviewing land use planning processes, developing a B.C.-wide watershed security strategy, and designing a wild salmon recovery program.

This is good news from Howard’s perspective. “When (land use planning) opens up, we're going to push the Goat (River) and the Raush pretty hard at that point,” he said. 

Added impetus for change may come from the federal government, which last year joined the U.S., Britain and the E.U. in committing to protect 30 per cent of its land and ocean areas by 2030.

The provinces will more or less have to cooperate in attaining that goal, said Howard.

“Where’s all the new protected areas going to come from?” he asked. Howard hopes the Raush will figure into the mix.

Nathan Cullen, B.C.’s Secretary of State for Lands and Natural Resource Operations, has been tasked with modernizing land use planning processes in B.C.

“Over the last number of years, the decisions on the land base have gotten increasingly complex, with First Nations rights and title, raised expectations on conservation and recreation, (and) more and more pressures on the land base,” said Cullen. People are interested in what happens to the land and are wanting to have a say, he said. “Public interest seems to be at an all-time high.”

Besides the need for greater government transparency and public engagement, legal obligations stemming from implementing the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA) commit government to true consultation on land use planning. In forestry management, for instance, the Province has committed to ‘government-to-government’ consultation on old growth management policy changes.

In the Raush, at least three First Nations have laid territorial claim to land in the watershed. Under DRIPA, it’s unclear how, or to what level, Carrier is obligated to consult with First Nationsm but prior to the law’s passage, local stakeholders had to be informed prior to the commencement of resource development. Representatives of the Simpcw and Lheidli T’enneh Nations, and the Canim Lake Indian Band did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Cullen is consulting with Indigenous leaders, environmental groups, industry, and communities across the province, to find out what’s working and what isn’t. 

“There's a lot of Raush Valleys around the province, where you have competing visions and interests going on with less and less land to talk about, because so much of it has either fallen under protection or has been already impacted by industrial activity,” Cullen said.

When it comes to salmon, land use decisions are important, said Parliamentary Secretary of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Fin Donnelly.

Among other responsibilities, Donnelly is tasked with revitalizing B.C.’s wild salmon populations and supporting the cross-ministry development of a watershed security strategy.

Intact watersheds like the Raush will provide the best form and function for salmon, however, multiple users and various values of the land have to be considered, Donnelly said. “That's the challenge of creating a plan.” 

A watershed security strategy needs to be developed at the individual watershed level and any related land use plan should incorporate that watershed strategy including good protections for salmon, he said.

Seven species of salmon spawn in the Fraser River. In 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the Chinook salmon in the Raush River as endangered, citing water habitat quality and harvesting as threats.

Every Chinook and Sockeye-producing system is in decline, and the further a species has to swim up the Fraser, the worse off it is,“ said independent fisheries biologist Brian Toth, who specializes in Upper Fraser River fisheries. 

“Over the past 20 to 50 years, we have not been doing an acceptable job in terms of how we've managed salmon,” said Donnelly. “Things have to change if we value salmon.”

Some ecosystems should be saved as study areas to provide ecological blueprints, including genetic seeds and grafting stock of naturally-occuring ecosystems, said Dunster resident Rob Mercereau. “The Raush is as close as we have to fulfilling that need. (Almost) everything else in the Robson Valley has been greatly altered by rebuilding and logging.”

A former tree planter, raised for a few years in a logging camp, and the current part owner of a small portable sawmill, Mercereau believes logging should be selective and stop targeting old growth in forests like the Raush.

“The numbers don’t add up for any long-term (old growth logging) scenario,” said Mercereau, “Regionally,  there is less than five per cent of the large old growth trees left. That won’t last long… then what?”

Once the old growth is gone, the forestry industry will be forced to change direction with what they are cutting, Mercereau said. 

“In the meantime, the primal forest is collateral damage because they don’t have the foresight to plan ahead and retool now.”

Under the Robson Valley LRMP, about 74 per cent of the land is open to some form of development: 31 per cent is designated for resource development, 19 per cent managed for multiple uses, and 24 per cent weighted towards conservation with extra restrictions on resource development. 

While the designation of zones was a key improvement in the LRMPs, the land use planning process had some significant shortcomings, said Dr. Karen Price, an independent ecologist who has professionally assessed and developed numerous land use, environmental stewardship, and park management plans.

The size of the protected zones weren’t based on science and were limited by how much land could be off limits for timber harvesting, said Price, who sat on the round table for the Bulkley Valley LRMP negotiations. 

“(The protected areas) were only allowed to impact timber by a certain amount—the same story that has been going on for decades.”

As flawed as previous land planning processes were 20 years ago, they allowed people with different perspectives to sit together and talk, and while the jury is out on what form the new land use planning process will take, some people recall the old round tables nostalgically, Cullen said, who was involved in a round table himself years ago. “That was a lot more hopeful than working out your issues in court or at a blockade.”

Cullen has heard a consistent refrain from diverse voices cautioning him that the issues will only increase in complexity and difficulty. 

“We need a much better way of talking to each other and coming to decisions,” he said. 

“I'm sick of absolutes and people saying, if we have economic, we can't have environmental. I believe we can have both,” COFI’s Yurkovich said in an interview last year. “I believe we can constantly look at the way we're doing things (and)... learn to do things differently.”

For the vast majority of people, there's a way to find a common ground, Yurkovich said. “Sometimes you get to the place and you can't agree, but I think we have to hear each other out."

“I’m not against logging,” said Mercereau, who referenced some innovative harvesting techniques previously employed by Carrier Lumber that left more of the forest intact. “I just think government and industry have horribly mismanaged this so-called public resource on unceded territory, and now the reckoning is upon them.”

A person isn’t necessarily on one side or the other, said Cardinal. “You can be a hunter and an environmentalist; both a logger and an environmentalist,” she said. “We're not opposed to logging in general, we just think it should be protected up there.”

Since much of the Fraser headwaters area has already been developed, limiting access in the Raush is a big deal, said Cardinal. “You just can't go back once there's a road.”

 

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