Spray Lake Sawmills and Watershed Stewardship

Spray Lake Sawmills (SLS) has been operating in the Bow River watershed since it acquired the Eau Claire Lumber Company timber quota in 1953. Back in those days, SLS operated near Spray Lake reservoir above the current day Town of Canmore4. Overtime, through the development of Alberta government, Integrated Resource Plans and the adoption of landscape level, formally protected areas, the designated mixed use forestry areas have been reallocated to the generally low risk, lower elevation, mixed use forests zones.

Approximately thirty-seven percent of the Spray Lake Sawmills regional assessment area is currently comprised of formally protected areas, including Wildland Provincial Parks (WPP) and Provincial Parks (PP) (Don Getty WPP, Elbow-Sheep WPP, Bluerock WPP, Sheep River PP), which occur immediately adjacent to and functionally within the FMA.

More than 188 km2 of currently protected lands were former timber quota lands, voluntarily contributed by SLS to the Crown for the purpose of protecting lower elevation Foothills landscapes. Protected areas are abundant in the FMA and region for the Alpine, Subalpine and Montane subregions. Within the Forest Management Agreement boundary, approximately 28% of the area is not available for harvest. Most of this area has been set aside for prime protection, wetland and riparian stream buffers and steep slopes that are off limits to forestry.3

Forest Hydrology

Hydrologic recovery is predicated on forestry research that leaf area index (LAI) explains 85-96% of the variation in above ground net primary production of forests in the western US. Net primary production coincides with evapotranspiration relationships that equate to hydrologic recovery. LAI is influenced largely by water and nutrient availability. SLS based its current hydrologic disturbance evaluation on an analysis called ECA-AB.4

This approach is based on the timing of a trees maximum current growth increment. The literature has shown that maximum growth coincides with maximum LAI at a particular time in a trees lifecycle. Other factors including tree species and site variability create multiple growth curves that create net primary production variability across the landscape. ECA or equivalent clear-cut area is used as an index of disturbance for the watershed.4

The process of hydrologic recovery occurs annually. This process initiates after reforestation. As an example, if 1 hectare of land was reforested 15 years ago, the hectare of land is functioning at approximately 50% of the full hydrologic level, assuming maximum LAI is achieved at 30 years4.  As previously mentioned, there are different growth curves that result in varying ECA ages potentially applied across the FMA.

The current forest plan was designed such that each watershed compartment maintains at least 80% of the area comprised of hydrologic recovery equivalent stands. A level of insurance was added by assuming LAI was achieved at 55 years after harvest. 2009, Alberta ECA studies demonstrate Alberta pine stands typically reach maximum LAI in approximately 30 years.4

As a provincial requirement, SLS annually reconciles and reports its actual harvest level compared to the spatial harvest sequence outlined in the forest plan. This reconciliation is tied to the ECA model to ensure harvest levels are below modelled thresholds. As an example, the 2014 evaluation, demonstrates the B9 quota (a small potion of the lower Ghost watershed) compartment to have a current ECA of approximately 4%.

The natural variability of peak flow has been shown to decrease as a function of a larger watershed area. Forest hydrology literature demonstrates, as spatial scales increase, the effect of harvest (when maintained below 20%, ECA) have conventionally been considered low risk to increasing peak flows.4 Our harvest thresholds are based on maintaining ECA’s below 20%. For the first 25 years of the forest plan, maximum ECA’s, range from 8% to 19%. These compartment based values change on an annual basis. Considering the low ECA’s modelled, and that approximately 70% of the forest management area is located outside of snow dominated watersheds, the risk of increasing peak flows or contributing to flooding is very low4. ECA analysis used in Alberta is precautionary. Although projections have been made 200 years into the future, this modelling work is repeated with updated data every 10 years.

We are confident that the Alberta ECA approach, results in selection of responsible and very conservative harvest thresholds. Additionally, we are exploring new modelling tools to evaluate disturbances and the potential to increase peak flows.

Water Quality

The water quality data collected by the government of Alberta, the City of Calgary, the Bow River Basin Council, The Elbow River Watershed Partnership and Spray Lake Sawmills demonstrates the water quality flowing from the forest reserve is in a natural or desirable condition4. SLS has published its 9 year, six stream water quality results on the company website that details the findings. This study included Benthic Macroinvertebrate analysis to learn about aquatic ecosystem health.6

From 1998 through present, sampling of the Elbow River has been conducted monthly at sampling stations by the City of Calgary. Four sites including the Elbow River above Cobble Flats, McLean Creek near Mouth, Prairie Creek near Mouth, and the Elbow River above Bragg Creek are all located within the Spray Lake Sawmills Forest Management Agreement Area.1

An additional Elbow River site, Bragg Creek at Mouth is adjacent downstream of the FMA. An additional Bow River tributary site is located at the Ghost River near Benchlands. The Benchlands site is located adjacent and downstream of the FMA.1

The Benchlands site, on the Ghost River has been sampled monthly since 2008. This station is adjacent to the forest reserve boundary and downstream from a very active motorized recreational trail network. This watershed has a mix of uses with the majority of the high elevation headwater areas formally protected. As with all of the water quality monitoring on the forest reserve, the water quality has been found to be natural or desirable.1

The City of Calgary’s monthly water quality analysis consistently indicates the water leaving the forest reserve to be in a natural to desirable condition.1 In total, the city has been collecting data from 6 sites, representative of the mixed use, Spray Lake Sawmills FMA. Out of the 34 streams routinely monitored by the city, the purest water is found within the forest reserve. In contrast, water quality index values decreased steadily downstream, indicating a gradual deterioration of water quality as a consequence of increasing concentrations of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), total suspended solids, aluminum and E. coli bacteria.1

Alternative Practices

Even though Spray Lake Sawmills has been very successful in our efforts to protect and enhance the watershed there are always opportunities for improvement. Over the years, substantive changes have been made to operations that differentiate SLS forest practices from traditional operations found throughout Canada and the United States.  Millions of dollars are invested annually on watershed enhancing practices that exceed government requirements.

SLS is the only forest products company we are aware of, that has a 1 for 1 road reclamation program, uses 100% tree utilization harvesting, completes 100% nutrient management/stump-side processing and uses bridges for virtually every stream crossing6. The boreal region, Operating Ground Rule, stream protection practices are also among the most stringent in North America4.

SLS is proud of our forest management practices and as a result of our practices have been recognized with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accreditation. The greater global environmental community created the FSC and it is considered by environmentalists to be the most far reaching sustainable forestry program available. SLS is a verified leader in sustainable forestry and the only sawmill in Alberta with FSC accreditation.

Rules and Regulations

Spray Lake Sawmills operates within a stringent regulatory framework. The current forest plan was developed in accordance with the Alberta Eastern Slopes Policy and the Integrated Resource Management Plans.  Activities around watercourses are subject to the Federal Fisheries Act and the Federal Navigable Waters Protection Act.  At the Provincial level, activities are guided by the Water Act, Code of Practice for Water Course Crossings, the Alberta Forest Planning Standard, and the Operating Ground Rules. For example, the Alberta government requires adherence to:

Section 5.9.13 A planning standard requirement that predictions to impacts on water yield must be made using watershed modelling which will also be used to determine an acceptable target for water yield increases and;

Section 6.0.2 An Operating Ground Rule requirement that specifies the threshold to be no more than 15% above average annual water yield (mm/yr).2

Appendix 1.0 Validation by a Registered Forestry Professional (RFP)

Only licensed forestry professionals are permitted to practice forestry in Alberta. Alberta law (the Regulated Forestry Profession Act) requires an RFP to submit the components of forest management plans, annual operating plans and harvest activity reporting, as identified in this annex, for approval.2

1.1 Significance of RFP Validation

RFP validation provides assurance to Alberta that work is accurate and has been prepared with due diligence. Government RFPs shall review validated work by conducting a reasonable assessment for accuracy and shall take appropriate corrective actions where validated work is not accurate. The documentation required to demonstrate due diligence is viewed as a significant source for validating accuracy. Alberta will not accept inadequate documentation and may refer such occurrences to the Complaints Director of the appropriate College.2

5-Yr Stewardship Report

Supplemental to the Operating Ground Rules, SLS developed a series of resource management objectives, designed to measure its performance in meeting the stated goals identified in the Detailed Forest Management Plan. Some of the plan metrics measured include: water quality, road access and reclamation, reforestation performance, biodiversity and wildlife habitat supply, soil disturbance, and sustainable timber supply. SLS has consistently met or exceeded all of the stated plan objectives.6

Wildfire and Fuels Management

Wildfire is likely the biggest threat to maintaining desired water quality. We would like to partner with the city and the Alberta government to review existing fire management plans to learn if additional actions are feasible and warranted. From a forest protection and ecological standpoint, creating new age classes is paramount to promoting a healthy forest and watershed. In January of 2013, SLS completed an Evaluation of the Pre-industrial Forest Condition Report. The evaluation demonstrates that the Bow forests age class distribution are out of balance with the pre-industrial forest baseline.5

This problem is not unique to Alberta and is the case for almost all unmanaged forests in North America. The age class imbalance is by and large resulting from successful fire suppression efforts. Large areas, of disproportionate old forest, containing significant levels of dead and dying trees are creating the potential to be dangerous wildfire fuel. As fuel levels accumulate on the landscape, they can be very challenging to firefighters during a wildfire event. Wildfires become intensely hot, making them very difficult to suppress and damaging to soils and wildlife habitat releasing a multitude of contaminates into the watershed.4

Our goal as forest managers is to try and keep up with fuel loading by replacing the natural process of wildfire with responsible timber harvesting and reforestation. Timber harvesting not only provides jobs and renewable building products, but also creates natural capital in the form of healthy young forests. Young forested stands provide wildfire/watershed resiliency and needed wildlife habitat that move the forest age class distribution closer to natural conditions.

Recently completed watershed projects

•          HCVF Report version 2, Category 4: Forest Areas that Provide Basic Services of Nature in

Critical Situations (e.g. Watershed Protection, Erosion Control) Peer Review Report

•          Alberta WaterSMART forest hydrology literature review

•          Completion of HCVF Report version 3 to include peer review comments and;

•          Comparison of projected ECA’s versus actual harvest

Watershed initiatives being explored

•          Development of multi-stakeholder watershed improvement pilot project

•          Partnership with the City of Calgary, the Alberta Forest Research Institute, the Alberta

Government and Alberta WaterSMART to implement a Alberta watershed model

•          Application of a watershed assessment protocol with the AESRD

•          Identification and mapping of significant recharge areas on the FMA

•          Identification and mapping of snow dominated sub basins and;

•          Development of a peak flow sensitivity index with Alberta WaterSMART

As required by provincial regulations, SLS is currently embarking on the development of a new Detailed Forest Management Plan. The plan will include a new hydrological analysis using an updated forest inventory. All Forest Management Agreement holders in Alberta are required to complete a 200 year, forest management plan every 10 years.

Similar to the existing plan, we will be using an adaptive management approach that addresses natural disturbance risks such as wildfire, forest insect and disease issues, floods, and droughts. Maintaining high quality water will be a primary deliverable. The planning process provides many opportunities for stakeholders and SLS to work together.

Work Cited

1 City of Calgary. Calgary Watershed Report: A summary of Surface Water Quality in the Bow

and Elbow Watersheds 2010-2012. 2013.

2 Alberta Sustainable Resource Development and Spray Lake Sawmills. Operating Ground Rules.

2012.

3 Kansas and Mogilefsky. Protected Area Gap Analysis version 2. July 2013.

4 Kansas and Mogilefsky, HCVF report version 3 section 4.4. October 2014.

5 Marie-Pierre Rogeau, An Evaluation of Pre industrial Forest Conditions. January 2013.

6 Mogilefsky and Denney. 5 year Stewardship Report. July 2013.


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