Protecting the caribou or saving jobs? Governments facing dilemmas and deadlines

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An October deadline is fast-approaching for provincial action plans to protect 51 caribou ranges across Canada and governments at all levels are striving to strike a balance between protecting the herds and preserving jobs in industries already beset by problems.

With only months to go, a massively complicated ecosystem to consider and a multi-jurisdictional process for creating the plans, local officials and industry players are starting to feel the pressure.

“You’ve got to go through three levels of government in three months? I’ve never heard of this,” said Jim Rennie, the mayor of Woodlands County in northwestern Alberta, which has several pulp and paper mills nearby.

Although Rennie said the timeline is concerning, he gets the sense Alberta is taking a balanced approach to the issue and will be looking for creative solutions for affected industries. The forestry sector, for example, is dealing with countervailing tariffs on softwood lumber from the United States, and the oil and gas industry is still recovering from a global oil price shock.

The law demands the caribou ranges contain 65 per cent undisturbed land, but Rennie says Woodlands County, in some spots, has a 95 per cent disturbance rate due to industrial activity. Keeping that land undisturbed could mean blocking off squares of land used by forestry or energy companies or that could be home to future development.

“That square may be the back of 10 or 20 or 30 oil wells or it could be the future home of a major pipeline,” Rennie said.

The government and environmental groups say the required disturbance rate is based on a scientific formula, but some industry and local officials have called it arbitrary. Some worry the requirements will be impossible to meet.

“Talking to the biologists that work at the mills, they said the rules are unattainable. That 65 per cent, you can’t get to that. Even if we just walked out of the forest today — you just took everybody out — we can’t get to the 65. All those seismic lines are not going away,” said Rennie.

Seismic lines are corridors cut through the forest where explosive charges are used for oil and gas exploration. Some of them are decades old and are now makeshift paths for snowmobile and ATV users. For wolves preying on the endangered caribou, they’ve become hunting highways, allowing the animals to penetrate deeper into the forest.

The Alberta government announced last year it will continue its controversial wolf cull program, which involves shooting the animals from helicopters. Reforestation of the seismic lines has become a priority, but that can take decades.

“In some areas where the disturbance area is very high, clearly this is going to be a long-term process to restore some of the critical habitat. You’re not going to regrow trees in five years,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of environment.

The woodland caribou is covered by the Species at Risk Act and the October deadline stems from a five-year window given by the previous Conservative government when it announced the strategy in 2012.

Derek Nighbor, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, said it’s not even clear that industry has a negative effect on the caribou. He said caribou levels in Jasper and Banff, national parks where there is no industrial activity, are declining faster than in other areas.

Nigbor warned against “thousands of job losses,” and said the government shouldn’t rush ahead with a plan before truly understanding what is negatively affecting the caribou herds.

Still, everyone agrees that, particularly in highly disrupted areas, some creative solutions are needed. For example, if several different companies are working in the same area they can share a single road, rather than making four different ones.

While the provinces are in charge of creating the plans, the federal government is managing the process. And the deadlines to submit a plan aren’t necessarily ironclad. Wilkinson said if he hears from the provinces that they’ve made headway and can provide a due date, it will be a “sign of very significant progress.”

Alberta has the most difficult task ahead of it, but communities in northern Ontario, northern Quebec and parts of British Columbia will have to deal with these issues too, Wilkinson.

There is general agreement that getting it right is more important than hitting the upcoming deadline. Rennie, the mayor in Alberta, said a poor plan could mean the issue goes to court and a judge will end up making the decisions.

Maryann Chichak, the mayor of Whitecourt, which borders Woodlands County and is home to the Millar Western pulp mill, said if a plan is implemented poorly it could lead to “astronomical” job losses in areas that depend on forestry. She said about 10 per cent of the town’s population makes a living from the industry. 

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