This story first appeared in The Coast on Feb 28, 2008:
Lake Major Watershed, source of Dartmouth’s drinking water, is being logged. It’s the centre of a battle over water safety.
By Chris Benjamin
In the wake of Hurricane Juan, two philosophies of forestry management are coming into conflict: tinker with it or leave it be.
In 2003, Juan slammed straight into Halifax. Among other damage, the storm took down 4,000 acres of trees in the redundantly named Lake Major Watershed Protected Water Area, a 17,000-acre protected area that supplies Dartmouth, Cole Harbour, Westphal and Eastern Passage with drinking water.
After Juan, the Halifax Regional Watershed Commission, which owns much of the watershed, worried about all those downed trees. What if they dried up and caught fire? What if that fire put ash and soil into our drinking water?
To be safe, the commission enlisted logging companies to salvage the stumpage. “We are involved in active management,” explains the amicable Barry Geddes, watershed manager for the commission and a professional forester by background.
In February 2007, Geddes issued a letter to residents surrounding the protected watershed announcing that close to 300 acres of hurricane-affected land were targeted for harvest. Geddes’ letter explained that the companies had been “made aware of all applicable HRM bylaws.” He also said the commission hires only companies certified to meet modern environmental standards.
To recoup the salvage costs of pulling out blown down trees, the commission charges the loggers for the right to take out the standing trees, too.
The loggers have so far harvested almost 230 acres of forest. Another potential 600 acres have since been targeted, necessitating six kilometres of new logging roads.
Raymond Plourde, the wilderness and public lands coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, is not impressed. “Hurricanes are actually part of a natural cycle,” Plourde says. “The notion of clear-cutting a larger area counters that cycle.”
Plourde explains that cutting wind-fallen and standing trees also necessitatescutting “snags”—trees that are leaning but alive with functioning roots. “Snags are some of the most important components for habitat for wildlife,” Plourde says. “They provide a home and a food supply. There is nothing wrong with trees falling downand snagging.”
Geddes, who worked in the forestry industry in Ontario for several years before returning to his native Nova Scotia, openly acknowledges that logging this sensitive area will involve clear-cutting. He says that by removing stands of older trees, which are at greater risk of disease and rot, the health of the forest will be safeguarded.
“The intent of the recovery program is to encourage and maintain the growth of vibrant, healthy forests that promote a pristine drinking water supply,” he wrote in his letter to residents.
The targeted stands of trees around Lake Major are generally older, between 70 and 100 years—mature to over-mature, according to Geddes.
“I used to be in that way of thinking that anything older should be cut,” he explains. “But now I’m more interested in the health of the trees. We are looking for a healthy forest, one without rot and disease. We are cutting decadent trees.”
Plourde calls this term Orwellian.“Decadent,” he says. “Are these trees out cruising the strip, drinking martinis?”
A long-time angler and conservationist, Plourde feels that the operation is completely unnecessary and will make Dartmouth’s water supply worse, not better. He added that in our wet climate the likelihood of fire breaking out is very low. “There are very few dry lightning-strike fires, so the trees would naturally rot,” he says.
Plourde is concerned that the salvage operation is financially motivated, and will make the watershed more prone to forest fires. He says that the protected watershed should be managed not by a career forester but by a freshwater ecologist.
“I’m sure he’s a wonderful fella and means the very best,” Plourde says of Geddes. “But if you ask a forester to manage a forest for a purpose other than forestry, trees will still be cut.”
Logging roads may also increase the opportunity for humans, whom Plourde calls “the greatest vector for fires,” to enter the wild woods, lighting matches, cigarettes, lighters or making campfires.
Potentially worse than human foot traffic in the watershed is the use of recreational, all-terrain vehicles. Snowmobiles, three-wheelers and four-wheelers leak gas and oil into the water we drink, and alter the natural course of water runoff with their tracks.
Geddes shares the Ecology Action Centre’s concern about ATV traffic in protected areas, but feels that new logging roads will not increase traffic. “If anything, our staff presence on those roads is a deterrent,” he says, an assertion that Plourde calls a “load of crap.”
“I’m stunned to hear that used as justification for roads,” he says.
From an ecological perspective, Plourde says the salvage operation is simply not worth the cost and will increase the likelihood of sediment runoff into drinking water. In the long run, Plourde says that clear-cutting will result in a less diverse, hotter, drier forest that is more prone to mass die-off and a greater fire hazard.
Plourde’s view is supported by Will Koop of the BC Tap Water Association, who literally wrote the book on the subject, From Wisdom to Tyranny: A History of British Columbia’s Drinking Watershed Reserves.
According to Koop, “Profit is the hook. Their business should only come from the sale of water to the public. Once they start logging they’ll want to keep going. It’s the loggers’ way in.”
But Geddes says that because of the high cost of its logging roads, the commission is losing money. He speaks at length of the post-Juan salvage operation as being prudent management and small in scale. “These are not big operations,”he says.
By comparison, Geddes offers the nearby Pockwock Lake Watershed Protected Water Area, which has been actively harvested for decades. As a result, he says, “It’s a fragmented forest with uneven age stem management and it is not prone to forest fires.”
Plourde feels that the attitude that people can manage forests better than nature is “typical human hubris.” He might entertain selective harvesting using low impact methods like horses or human labour as acceptable, but he says there is no way clear-cutting can result in a diverse forest.
HRM is not the first municipality to encounter this philosophical difference in how to manage forests around drinking water sources. According to Koop, the battle has been raging among the forestry industry, government and citizens since the 1940s.
“That’s when the logging industry started logging in all 3,000 protected watersheds in the US,” he says. “They spread the gospel into Canada.”
Koop has worked tirelessly since 1991 to protect the watershed in Vancouver, which regained its protected status in 1994, after decades of logging activities. It is now illegal to log in that watershed and several others in British Columbia, he said.
But Koop says that loggers never stop finding legislative loopholes.
“BC’s Liberal government has partnered with the logging industry to regulate, for the first time in history, the rights of loggers,” he says. “They created the Forest and Range Practices Act, which says you can’t unduly impede the flow of timber in this province.”
Koop says this act was an attempt to over-ride municipal protection of forests around drinking water.
It’s tempting to call this a split between activists and loggers, but even the World Bank partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to bolster Koop’s point of view. In their 2003 report, Running Pure: The importance of forest protected areas to drinking water, these two institutional juggernauts agreed that protection of natural forests within watersheds “provides benefits in terms of biodiversity conservation, recreational, social and economic values,” and maintains a high quality water supply.
Not surprisingly, Plourde turns a better phrase than the World Bank. Accordingto him, “Nature is the best filtrationsystem going.”