A bridge being built by West Fraser Cochrane, formerly Spray Lake Sawmills, across the Highwood River to access logging operations in the Upper Highwood area of Kananaskis Country in August 2023.File Photo/Rocky Mountain Outlook

A controversial plan to clearcut a forested area about the size of  2,000 football fields in the Upper Highwood of Kananaskis Country is temporarily halted.

West Fraser Cochrane, formerly Spray Lake Sawmills, announced in a statement on the company’s website that it’s pausing its 1,100-hectare logging plan to allow time for consultation with stakeholders.

“We want to take time to meet with local groups that have expressed an interest in our planned activities and to meet with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to discuss the bridge over the Highwood River,” it stated. 

“We are now in the process of meeting with local groups that are interested in sharing information regarding forestry operations in the region. We will work to incorporate actionable information that we garner through these conversations into our future harvest plans for the Highwood.”

The logging plan was met with criticism from recreational and environmental groups like Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Alberta Wilderness Association and Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation.

Katie Morrison, executive director of CPAWS southern Alberta, said she was encouraged to see the plan put on pause.

“This is a testament to all the concerned citizens who raised their voices. We hope they will recognize the importance of this area for wildlife, threatened native trout, and recreation, and permanently remove these areas from their cutting plans,” said Morrison.

In response to the planned logging operation and with concerns for habitat of at-risk bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, CPAWS spearheaded a recent environmental DNA study proving the presence of at-risk species in the Highwood River and Loomis Creek areas where logging is set to take place.  

The Highwood River and adjacent riparian zone are identified as critical habitat for bull trout by the DFO, which is investigating West Fraser for building a bridge over the Highwood without a Fisheries Act or Species at Risk permit.

West Fraser’s statement noted it is reaching out to the DFO to discuss the bridge further and it will not be using the bridge in advance of those discussions.

Since its letter-writing campaign to the Alberta ministries of forestry and parks and environment and protected areas went live in August, advocacy group Take a Stand for Kananaskis and the Upper Highwood has sent over 6,600 letters on behalf of those opposed to the plan.

Becky Best-Bertwistle, lead volunteer with the group, said in an email the news is welcome in a “tough, dry winter.”

The mayors of Okotoks and High River also wrote letters to the province asking for a pause to the logging plan in light of the negative effects of clearcutting in the watershed and with anticipated drought in 2024. Logging was initially set to begin in fall last year, with the majority of harvest expected over winter and fall 2024.

“We will continue our advocacy to ensure this pause becomes a permanent halt of all logging in our sensitive headwaters,” said Best-Bertwistle.

West Fraser Cochrane could not be immediately reached by publication, however, it was confirmed in mid-January that the company was beginning to meet with concerned groups.

“At this point, we are meeting directly with groups who have expressed an interest in discussing these important forest lands,” said spokesperson Joyce Waygenaar in a previous email to the Outlook.

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Feb 21, 2024 at 12:33

This item reprinted with permission from   Rocky Mountain Outlook   Canmore, Alberta

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