08/17/2011 03:29 EDT | Updated 10/17/2011 05:12 EDT

Renewal of Al-Pac deal threatens caribou, gives company excess control: group

EDMONTON - Environmentalists say a deal to quietly re-establish a forestry company's tenure over a vast tract of northeastern Alberta also used by oilsands firms doesn't include protection for the area's endangered caribou herds.

The Alberta Wilderness Association says the deal with Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries gives the company more control over the provincially owned forests than the government has.

"We are very concerned that there appear to be no new provisions for caribou protection in even the existing area," association spokeswoman Carolyn Campbell said Wednesday.

"Numerous scientific studies have shown that the populations are declining quite rapidly and a caribou panel said in 2009 that without immediate ... actions these caribou would be gone in two to four decades."

Campbell said her group plans to bring its concerns to the Forest Stewardship Council, considered by many to be the world's top certifier of sustainable forestry and which has previously approved Alberta-Pacific's practices.

An Alberta-Pacific spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

But Dave Ealey of Alberta Sustainable Resources said the tenure deal is the wrong place to look for habitat protection. Those arrangements are made in the company's management plan.

"That is where is considerations of caribou habitat, looking at requirements for where timber harvesting can occur relative to other values, is brought forward," he said.

Ealey said Alberta-Pacific is due to renew its plan and its provisions for caribou in 2015.

Alberta-Pacific has long managed an area of about six million hectares in Alberta's northeast. The region also has extensive energy development and includes most of the province's oilsands.

The forests are shared by eight herds of woodland caribou, which are considered threatened under federal and provincial laws.

Both levels of government are considering ways to protect the species. The province has drafted a land-use plan and Ottawa is expected to release its national caribou recovery strategy Sept. 1.

Environmentalists have already said Alberta's plan does little to preserve critical habitat. They say the renewal of Al-Pac's tenure without new protected areas — and in advance of any federal moves — suggests the province isn't serious about keeping caribou around.

"It's a window closing," Campbell said. "The fact that the Alberta government has secretly sealed the deal with Al-Pac on managing its forest area without any apparent increase in caribou protection is a big concern."

Campbell pointed to a clause in the agreement that seems to give the company's rights precedence over those of the government, which actually owns the forests. The province can enhance forest, fish and wildlife resources "provided the company's right to establish, grow, harvest, and remove timber is not significantly impaired."

That clause wasn't in the old agreement, said Campbell.

"That seems like a big step backwards. These are Albertans' forests. They aren't Al-Pac's forests."

Ealey said the clause refers to the overall management of the forests. He said the government will still be able to manage specific parts of the region for other purposes.

"There has to be efforts made so the company can still continue to do its activity on that landscape," he said.

"It may not be in that specific location because there's a need for critical habitat. If that's the case, there has to be other options within that overall agreement area and that's what this gives the company."

Northeastern Alberta is increasingly used by industry. Forestry has already affected about 110,000 hectares of caribou habitat. The area also has 35,000 oil and gas wells, 66,000 kilometres of seismic lines, 13,000 kilometres of pipelines and 12,000 kilometres of roads.

A recent report found that an average of 75 per cent of caribou range in the area has been disturbed by fire, industry, or both.