First Nation logging plan raises environmental questions

Over the next decade, up to 25,000 truckloads of timbre could be felled in forests around Haines Junction.

Over the next decade, up to 25,000 truckloads of timbre could be felled in forests around Haines Junction.

In areas of southwest Yukon that have been devastated by the spruce bark beetle, the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations and the Yukon government have agreed to allow up to one million cubic metres of wood to be harvested.

 Over 10 years, that could mean as many as six truckloads of timber a day.

That sounds like a lot of wood.

But it amounts to about 15,000 hectares of wood.

And the beetle has already infested more than 350,000 hectares of forestland just east of Kluane National Park.

Worse, the infestation continues to crawl further north and east, said Lawrence Joe, resources director for the Champagne/Aishihik.

So, the timber harvest won’t stem the outbreak, said Joe.

Curbing beetle infestation is not a goal of the harvesting plan either, he said.

“One of the primary reasons for the harvest is that every morning (residents) look out their windows and see a sea of dead trees,” said Joe in an interview last week.

In 2004, the two governments announced a “strategic forest management plan” that divided 1.3 million hectares of the Champagne/Aishihik traditional territory into 18 “landscape units.”

Parts of each unit were identified as potential harvest areas.

Other parcels were designated “no-go” tracts, and others required more planning.

The areas of eight units, designated as “forest resource management zones,” will be targeted for the next timber harvest.

Those targets were chosen according to accessibility, their proximity to communities and the extent of the beetle infestation, said Joe.

Spruce beetles started burrowing in the Alsek Valley’s trees 16 years ago.

 “It’s been raised to us for the last 10 years, since we first started feeling the effects of the beetle infestation,” said Joe.

“There’s a sense of ‘get on with it.’”

While potentially providing an influx of forestry dollars into the community, harvesting the standing dead wood near residential areas could also reduce the fire risk, he added.

The proposed harvest has raised a number of concerns for conservation groups.

Felling dead trees will not necessarily make bordering communities more fire safe, according to Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society forest conservation co-ordinator Theresa Gulliver.

“They’ve chosen the (scenario) with the lower level of consideration for the high-valued wildlife areas, rather than a more conservative option,” Gulliver said last week.

“Typically, in a planning process, we would consider what is to be set aside first.

“Ensuring the continuation of fully functioning ecosystems and including forests and the abundance and diversity of wildlife species surrounding existing parks is just as important as ensuring the same thing within the parks themselves.”

It remains unclear which tracts of land will be logged, she added.

The next step is a call for proposals to would-be loggers, and public consultations on the landscape plan.

Releasing both the call for proposals and the landscape plan simultaneously is problematic, said Yukon Conservation Society forest ecologist Sue Kemmett.

“The release of the landscape plan to the public dovetails with the advertisement that will solicit proposals from companies that are interested in logging in the Champagne/Aishihik traditional territory,” said Kemmett.

The call to industry would offer one million cubic metres, she added.

“The governments are unlikely to be able, or to want to make changes after this advertisement has gone out.

“That leads us to question how meaningful and how fair the public review period will actually be.

“(The plan) maximizes the amount of wood available and it minimizes the amount of protection given to wildlife habitat.”

Despite recent plagues in the forest around Haines Junction, they are still alive, said Kemmett.

“A forest with dead trees is very much an alive forest,” she said.

“The risk of considering it to be dead is that the plans that are made don’t protect the trees that are newly regenerating and, also, those trees that haven’t been killed by the spruce beetle.”

However, generating income locally is a step in the right direction, she added.

“Because we support sustainable communities and sustainable economies, we’re pleased that planning has reached a point where timbre can be allocated to forest companies.”

At this point, it’s hard to know how lucrative forestry in southwest Yukon will be, said Joe.

It is unknown how much salvageable wood remains standing in the stretches of forest.

It won’t be one million cubic metres of saw-log potential, he said.

“But there is a portion of this wood that is of very high quality saw-log wood and then you have to look at other uses.”

Like fuel, for example.

This is not the first time forestry options have been explored in Champagne/Aishihik traditional territory.

A past attempt was made by Dakwakada Forest Products Inc., a sawmill business owned by the First Nation.

“For a variety of reasons, including lack of tenure, the company failed,” said Joe.

“What we are doing now, as governments, is identifying a resource available that may provide an opportunity for industry.

“We, as governments, are not going into business.”

With the beetle infestation, forest fires and climate change, the future of the land is also unclear.

“We’re looking at what the long-term potential is for our land,” said Joe.

“With climate change, perhaps it won’t sustain a spruce forest in the future. It may simply revert to a grassland or an aspen environment.”