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New alarm sounded for Canada's forest

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Sunday, May 4, 2003

This story follows The Bee's 20-page special report, "State of Denial," published on April 27.

Thumb through the latest issue of Sierra magazine and you find a two-page color advertisement extolling the "natural wonders of Canada," especially the western province of Alberta.

"Amazing Alberta offers travelers with an adventurous heart thousands of chances to explore a world where national parks, camping, bird-watching ... and outdoor recreation abound," says the ad by a tourism marketing organization.

But a new scientific report portrays a much different province, one where rapid drilling for oil and natural gas along with logging are inflicting major damage to Alberta's boreal forest, threatening to destroy old-growth stands across a vast area in 20 to 65 years.

The report published in the journal Conservation Ecology is not the first to voice concern for Canada's boreal -- a mosaic of forests, lakes and ponds that stretches in a broad arc across the country and plays an important role in protecting the planet from global warming.

But two things make this study stand out: It was funded by a timber company -- Alberta Pacific Forest Industries -- and, unlike many more narrowly focused scientific papers, it broadly assesses the combined impacts of human activity on the boreal.

The collective impact of energy development and logging is enormous, the study concludes, threatening not just wildlife and old-growth areas but the long-term ability of the forest to produce lumber -- and jobs -- for Canadians.

"The attitude that the forest can be all things to all interests is no longer tenable, if indeed it ever was," the article says. "Although the boreal forest presents a seemingly endless expanse, it does in fact have limits and they are now being reached."

The study is important to California because the Golden State is a large consumer of Alberta wood products and natural gas. A quarter of the natural gas sold in California is pumped from sedimentary deposits that underlie western parts of Canada's boreal, mostly in Alberta. Sixty percent of Alberta's lumber, siding and paper is exported to the United States and, although precise figures aren't available, large quantities make their way into the California marketplace.

Since the study appeared in Conservation Ecology in April, it has stirred considerable controversy, in part because of its criticisms of Alberta government policies that invite oil and gas drilling and logging on the same landscape but, according to the study, fail to coordinate them.

"Different industrial sectors continue to be managed by different agencies using different policy instruments," the study said. "Environmental protection is handled through piecemeal regulations."

And it added: "The current system of forest management in Alberta is a relic of earlier times. Essentially unchanged from the 1950s, it was established to maximize economic returns from resource extraction in the north."

Dave Bartesko, head of Alberta Sustainable Resources -- the government agency which oversees public land development in the province -- disputed such assertions. Coordination between energy and logging firms "has been happening a lot over the past number of years," he said. "We are formalizing the steps the two industries have to go through to work together."

Ed Greenberg, spokesman for the Alberta Forest Products Association -- which represents most Alberta timber companies -- said the study's focus is on target but its conclusions are not.

"We share the concern over cumulative impacts," he said. "But we are disappointed with the sky-is-falling tone. And we reject the reference that Alberta forest management is a relic of earlier times. That is completely false."

Using a sophisticated computer model that took seven years to develop, the authors of the report examined the consequences of current provincial management across Alberta Pacific's 14.6-million-acre "forest management area," which is roughly the size of the Sierra Nevada and is being feverishly tapped for oil and natural gas.

Alberta Pacific, known as Al-Pac, is the province's largest timber company and is widely regarded as one of the most environmentally sensitive companies in Canada's boreal -- a vast region that is a sanctuary for many species of wildlife, from timber wolves to moose, and provides habitat for 40 percent of North America's nesting waterfowl.

But as logging, mining and other human activity advance northward, concern is growing across the boreal.

Unless change comes soon, the study said, Al-Pac's management area faces a dire future, in part because oil and gas drilling also entails wide-scale logging and land disturbances for well sites, roads, pipeline corridors and seismic exploration lines.

The study predicted that in the area:

* Old-growth softwood forests such as spruce and pine will disappear in 20 years. Old-growth stands of aspen will disappear in 65 years.

* Habitat for woodland caribou, a threatened species, will shrink from 43 percent of the area to 6 percent. A rapidly expanding network of roads will "cause soil erosion, disruption of water and fish movements, and increased access by humans, which leads to more hunting and poaching."

* By 2065, the forest will be so thoroughly logged that Al-Pac and other timber companies will face a shortage of wood.

"This timber shortfall will occur because annual harvest rates are currently based on the rate of tree growth, without accounting for losses from fire and the activities of the petroleum sector," the study said.

An editorial in the Edmonton Journal on April 27 called for quick action: "The provincial government prefers to manage the forest by voluntary cooperation between the two industries. But clearly, that's not good enough. ... This report is another wake-up call for the government."

Alberta's problems, though, generate little attention in California, which is the most populous state in the nation and is known both for its heavy consumption of natural resources and a strong environmental ethic.

At the California Energy Commission, spokesman Claudia Chandler said the Golden State, despite its size and resource consumption, is a national leader in the efficient use of energy.

"We're the most electricity-efficient state in the nation. And we're second in terms of overall energy efficiency," she said.

Asked about the environmental controversies in Alberta, she said: "We have not focused on that. Again, we are focused on energy efficiency. To me, it doesn't matter if (natural gas) comes from Montana or the Southwest. When you're using finite resources, you need to use them efficiently."

Commission figures show that 41 percent of natural gas consumed in California is used to generate electricity. Residential heating and cooking account for 21 percent. Industrial and commercial uses make up the rest.

Richard Schneider, lead author of the Conservation Ecology report, said one of the article's goals was to draw attention among a wider international audience to the ongoing resource boom and environmental devastation in Canada's boreal.

"This is not the wild wilderness of the north," he said. "There is an incredible amount of transformation going on."

But he also said there is room for hope.

"It doesn't have to be this way," said Schneider, executive director of the Edmonton branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Today, computer modeling tools like the one used in the study can help companies and the government do long-term planning, he said, adding: "They can look at what they are doing and see what kind of forest it will give them in the future."

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