Alberta’s petroleum and forest industries are defending their development practices in the forests in light of a new study forecasting a dire future for old-growth trees, commercial timber and wildlife habitat.
The study, by independent forest scientists, found that if current industrial practices and trends continue, old-growth stands of softwood trees such as spruce and pine could disappear within 20 years. Forest companies would run short of harvestable softwood timber in about 60 years.
Old-growth hardwood such as aspen trees used to make pulp and paper would vanish within 65 years. The overall industrial footprint in northern Alberta’s boreal forest would increase to eight linear kilometres of disturbance for every square kilometre of forest, from 1.8 kilometres disturbed per kilometre now, the study found.
A rapidly expanding network of resource access roads will “cause soil erosion, disruption of water and fish movements, changes in animal movement patterns and increased access by humans, which leads to more hunting and poaching,” the study says.
Forest habitat for woodland caribou – a threatened species in Alberta – would shrink from 43 per cent to six per cent of the forested land base.
“Nobody has a handle on this, and the (provincial) government is certainly not trying to put anything forward” to improve the future of the boreal forest, said Richard Schneider, an independent forest ecologist in Alberta and the lead author of the study.
“If you want to balance the economics and the ecological objectives, you’ve got to maintain old growth,” he said.
Schneider and his co-researchers used a relatively new but well-regarded computer model to see what 59,000 square kilometres of Alberta’s northern forest might look like over the next 100 years.
The study area is located within the forest management area of Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, which helped fund the research.
Researchers plugged into the computer model a wide range of data about the working practices and trends of the petroleum and forest industries in the boreal forest. For the oil and gas sector, this included information such as the number of wells drilled each year, the new wellsites, roads and pipelines expected, and the density and width of exploration seismic lines.
For the forest industry, the data included the annual amount of timber harvested, new haul roads needed, the trees burned by forest fires each year, and replanted and reforested areas.
Then the researchers let the computer model run forward 100 years to simulate what the future forest would look like.
The combined effects of Alberta’s industries “are threatening the integrity of the forests,” says their study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Conservation Ecology. “The root of the problem is the current system of (forest) management, which lacks meaningful ecological objectives and fails to integrate the overlapping activities of resource companies.”
But David Pryce, vice-president, Western Canada operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), said the researchers used outdated assumptions and incorrect data about oil and gas industry practices.
“There has been a fairly significant change in the way we do business out on the land,” Pryce said.
“The inputs (data) weren’t ours. If we looked at the inputs of today’s kind of activity, we would see a different result.”
Schneider and his colleagues also incorrectly applied the computer projections for their 59,000-sq-km study area to oil and gas activities across Alberta’s entire boreal forest, Pryce said.
“But oil and gas isn’t everywhere. So if you try and apply the model broadly across the boreal region, it doesn’t work.”
Pryce noted that Alberta Environment used an updated version of the same computer model in developing a new sustainable development strategy for the province’s northeast Rocky Mountain slopes.
This model – unlike the one used by Schneider – had direct input from the oil and gas industry and other stakeholders.
“It shows a dramatically different result from our industry’s impact on the landscape – in fact, less than five per cent of the other industries that are operating out there,” Pryce said.
Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA), said his industry shares the concern by scientists and the public about the cumulative impacts of industry and recreational use on the forest, and is taking steps to minimize these impacts.
“We don’t agree with the ‘sky-is-falling’ tone of the (Schneider) report,” he said.
The study by Schneider and colleagues calls Alberta’s current system of forest management “a relic of earlier times. Essentially unchanged from the 1950s, it was established to maximize economic returns from resource extraction in the North.”
Greenberg dismissed the contention that Alberta’s forest-management system is a relic as “totally false. Forest management activities and policies have changed dramatically over the years and will continue to adapt to future challenges.”
Schneider said the AFPA’s attitude “is basically sticking their head in the sand,” while failing to involve the provincial government in addressing serious forest-management problems.
He said the computer model he and his colleagues used also suggested management changes that would help prevent a disastrous future. Changes include new provincial legislation and enforceable company targets to preserve old-growth stands and biological diversity.
Yet the government’s current rules actually encourage companies to harvest old-growth stands first, ahead of younger trees, Schneider said.
He acknowledged that forest companies plant 75 million seedlings each year as part of a mandatory reforestation program. But he argued that “putting a plantation across northern Alberta . . . is not meeting any kind of ecological objectives.”
Moreover, forest companies’ timber-management plans don’t account for the significant loss of trees from oil and gas activities – such as clearing wellsites and seismic lines – or from forest fires that are consuming an ever-larger percentage of the boreal forest each year, Schneider added.
The petroleum and forest industries insist they are co-operating more closely than ever on reducing their combined environmental impact or “footprint” in the forest.
Shyra Mulloy, manager of stewardship at CAPP, said the average oil and gas seismic line in Alberta is now only about three metres wide – 70 per cent less than the width cleared 10 years ago. “The narrower the lines are, the more likely the lines are to naturally re- generate,” she noted.
Oil and gas companies also pay a timber-damage fee to forest firms that goes toward reforestation programs, Mulloy said.
Both industries will use the same access roads into an area whenever possible to develop their resources.
The AFPA’s Greenberg pointed out that forest companies now work closely with fish and wildlife biologists, and are funding research on ways to minimize impacts on grizzly bears and woodland caribou.
Schneider welcomed the co-operation by the two industries, but he said it is happening only in a few pilot projects in the Eastern Slopes. Government needs to legislate a limit on cumulative impacts in the entire boreal forest landscape, and let industry come up with innovative ways to meet this cap, he said.
The province should also adopt a comprehensive forest-conservation strategy as recommended six years ago by a government advisory group, Schneider said.
The concerns he and his co-researchers raise echo those in a report last summer by the independent Alberta Reforestation Standards Science Council, which said provincial forest policies are not directly linked to achieving biodiversity and other non-timber goals.
Also last summer, a critical article in National Geographic magazine called Alberta’s forest-management record “a prime example of the deleterious effects” of industrial development.
But Gordon Lehn, president of the AFPA, said 82 per cent of people polled by the forest industry association in public opinion surveys during the last 18 months said the forest industry is doing a “good-to-very-good” job of managing Alberta’s forests.
The surveys revealed that many people don’t know much about the industry or how it does its job, Lehn said. For example, 28 per cent of respondents weren’t aware that forests are a renewable resource.
The AFPA has launched a new public awareness campaign – with a $30,000 budget for media advertising – to tell people its “good news” story.
“I think our forest-management practices in Alberta are second to none,” Lehn said. However, he added that for an industry that employs 54,000 people and generates $8 billion in revenue for the province, “the support and understanding of the public is fundamental to our continued existence out there.”