06/25/2014 01:11 EDT | Updated 08/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Alberta Forest Loss Worst In Foothills, Not Oilsands: Satellite Imagery

Stephen J. Krasemann via Getty Images

EDMONTON - A report based on new satellite imagery says forests on the slopes of Alberta's Rocky Mountains are disappearing more quickly than anywhere else in the province — including the oilsands area.

The Global Forest Watch data, to be released Thursday, suggests industrial development is cutting through forests on the eastern slopes at twice the Canadian average and faster than countries that include the United States, Russia and Brazil.

"By any measure or comparison, this is a large amount of forest loss," said Global Forest Watch spokesman Peter Lee, who reached that conclusion using a database of hundreds of thousands of satellite pictures.

The information was compiled and processed by scientists and technicians at the University of Maryland and Google Earth. It used Landsat imagery from 2000 to 2012 to study how forest cover has changed globally.

Lee used that information to look at Alberta, where previous studies had already found the most industrially affected forests in Canada.

He found that in those 12 years, the eastern slopes of the Rockies lost 6.8 per cent of their forests that weren't in a protected area. That outpaced the rate of deforestation in the oilsands region, which came in at 5.5 per cent.

The Canadian average was 3.1 per cent. Brazil's average was 4.3 per cent, the U.S. was 2.9 per cent and Russia came in at 2.2 per cent.

"I have suspected this for some time," said Lee. "We've been watching the eastern slopes as kind of a hot spot, because it's been popping up as a region of great forest change."

Most forest loss in Canada is due to fire, Lee said. In Alberta, it's almost entirely due to energy and forestry.

"Ninety-five-plus per cent of forest loss in the eastern slopes is due to industrialization. It's almost exclusively due to industrial uses."

The losses are also widely dispersed.

"We're not talking about a concentration in one area," Lee said. "We're talking about a dispersal of these disturbances that are causing degradation of the entire forest system in the eastern slopes."

Lee's data, to be presented to the Alberta Wilderness Association, includes a map of industrial tenures granted by the provincial government.

"Almost the entire eastern slopes outside of prime protection are covered by one or more industrial tenures," he said. "And in the vast majority of the area, it's multiple industrial tenures."

As Lee was detailing his findings, the Alberta government announced it was putting another piece of endangered caribou habitat on the auction block for energy development. The 264 hectares in west-central Alberta make up some of the last relatively undisturbed habitat for two herds of mountain caribou, which a federal scientific panel recently declared in imminent danger of disappearing.

The amount of such caribou habitat recently leased out by the province sits at 1,700 hectares.

Lee said the eastern slopes are the headwaters of rivers that supply water for most of the province. The Bow, Red Deer and North Saskatchewan rivers all begin there.

He also pointed out that the region has become a popular recreational region.

"The eastern slopes have turned into Albertans' natural recreational playground," he said. "I think it would be a great surprise to people to learn that it's now become almost exclusively industrialized."

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