07/30/2012 04:20 EDT | Updated 09/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta Forest Deals Send Wrong Message On Conservation: Environmentalists

EDMONTON - Environmentalists say new deals signed between the Alberta government and two forestry companies will make it harder for the province to balance industry and conservation.

The Alberta Wilderness Association says the 20-year forestry management agreements, posted last week, tie Alberta's hands as it writes land-use plans to manage increasing pressure on public forests.

"The government is sending an unfortunate signal that just looking at the forest as timber supply seems to be the direction it wants to go," said spokeswoman Carolyn Campbell. "It pre-empts the spirit of cumulative effects planning."

One plan involves Sundre Forest Products, which manages a forest in west-central Alberta the size of Prince Edward Island at the headwaters of both the North Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers. The other concerns Slave Lake Pulp Corp., which operates a mill near Slave Lake, Alta.

Campbell said both agreements clearly see the forest primarily as a source of timber and contain new clauses to ensure it stays that way.

In language that didn't exist in previous forestry agreements, the government keeps the right to maintain and enhance forests only if "the company's right to establish, grow, harvest and remove timber is not significantly impaired."

Campbell also points out the threshold at which the company would be compensated for any forest withdrawn from harvest is also lowered in the new agreement — to one per cent from three per cent.

Sundre's old agreement was set to expire this summer and Campbell said her organization doesn't oppose its renewal. It just wants to ensure agreements remain flexible enough to deal with increased pressure from forestry, energy, urban growth and recreational use. She fears the new deals lock in old practices.

"The old ways of operating in that area didn't take into account watershed health and didn't take into account important wildlife. We need to go forward with a different view."

Campbell also pointed out the agreement was reached without public input.

Duncan MacDonnell, a spokesman for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said the public gets its chance to speak when companies submit 10-year management plans.

The government retains the right to withdraw land from the agreement, he said.

"This addition clarifies the company's right as the primary but not exclusive user of the area."

MacDonnell said the new clause — which has appeared in other renewed forestry management agreements — is intended to tightly define the company's rights on the land and ensure the government retains control over other aspects of use.

"This language is related entirely to the compensation and the removal of lands," he said. "It establishes what the minister's role is."

The agreement also refers to a possible future cumulative effects management plan.

"The company shall co-operate with the development and implementation of integrated land management initiatives to the satisfaction of the minister," it says.