Saskatchewan is ill prepared to manage the environmental impacts that the economic boom is bringing to the northern part of the province. The boreal forest is experiencing unprecedented development activity that is introducing an astonishing jumble of unnatural and often harmful impacts.
The good news, is most of our northern forest is still healthy. And we can keep it that way. There is plenty of information available on how to plan and manage activities for both economic development and ecological health. It requires a significant shift however, in how land use planning is currently done.
The Saskatchewan Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is calling on provincial decision-makers to introduce conservation-based planning measures throughout northern Saskatchewan. This will allow for developments to take place on Crown lands while taking care of the forest, local economies and indigenous cultures. ‘Our province needs to pursue economic development in a responsible way’ says Colleen Rickard, Program Director of CPAWS. ‘This means using conservation-based planning methods that look at ecological issues alongside economic ones. Livelihoods of people depend on healthy places. If we implement planning measures that take care of the forest, we also preserve local cultures and strengthen and diversify northern economies’.
Government land use planning has been underway for about a decade in various parts of the Saskatchewan forest, but plans aren’t taking care of the forest. In efforts to maximize economic development, government plans open huge areas up to industrial activity without incorporating sound conservation measures recommended by nature-based sciences and local wisdom. Government plans do not address what the forest ecosystem is sensitive to and what it can stand. They do not address declining species (such as the woodland caribou and some songbirds). They do not consider impacts to indigenous cultures. They do not incorporate much-need protection measures. They do not address cumulative impacts. And they do not keep an eye on the future by asking how today’s actions will impact the potential options and abilities of northern citizens to make a living and feed their families.
Conservation-based plans are being developed and implemented in other places in Canada and the world because they offer practical solutions for responsible land use. The health of the land is at the forefront of all decision-making, using credible science, local and traditional knowledge, and other best-available information about the land as backdrops. Networks of protected areas are established to link a mix of habitats across the landscape. Resource extraction activities are identified and managed at levels that don’t hurt the forest. Nature-sensitive resource extraction methods are a requirement. And all decision-making looks carefully at how human activities impact upon one another.
A short list of northern development activities includes timber harvesting, mining, drilling, tar sands projects, peat harvesting, water diversions, water draining, river damming, forest clearing (for agriculture) and road and trail developments. These activities fragment habitats, change natural predator-prey relationships, contaminate waters, upset seasonal flows, drain rivers and streams, pollute the air, hinder wildlife movements, impede wildlife reproduction, decimate species, introduce invasive species, destroy tourism values, remove options for traditional harvests, and so on.
Climate Change: Perhaps one of the greatest concerns regarding indiscriminate use of the forest is the impact that developments have on the forest’s overall ability to adapt to changes brought on by global warming. In our quest for money and jobs, we are changing nature, making it harder for plants and animals to survive. Global warming threatens to overlay a new set of impacts because of increased drying and burning. Forest ecosystems will change. Stressed wildlife will become more stressed. And as over-stressed species flounder and disappear, the web of life in the forest begins to unravel. This domino effect towards the demise of the forest is just one of many potential outcomes associated with climate change. The good news is, it can be minimised if we preserve a healthy forest ecosystem at the outset. In so doing, the native plants and animals will have a better chance to adapt to change as it comes.
Government land use plans place undue reliance on operational business plans and environmental impact assessments to take care of the forest. While such efforts are important for many reasons, heavy reliance on them is dangerous. First, there are many unknowns about the efficacy of operational plans and assessments to actually preserve ecosystems. Second, operational plans and assessments are developed on a project by project basis. As such, individual projects are not designed (or required) to address how they overlap and add to other impacts on the landscape. Third, environmental impact assessments often don’t happen because many projects simply are not required to do environmental impact assessments.
The province’s current protected areas program is profoundly inadequate to support habitats and wildlife populations. Methods and criteria used to select protected areas are weak and deficient. Sites chosen are inadequate. Forest ecology, forest sensitivities and forest functioning often have little to do with site selection. Instead, industry needs and arbitrary caps on how much can be protected, are driving forces.
There are three good conservation-based land use plans in Saskatchewan, but none have been implemented. These plans integrate conservation science, local knowledge, economic considerations, and best-available information about the planning areas, to develop solutions that allow for careful development and protection. The provincial government helped fund two of the three: the Athabasca plan in the far north and the Great Sand Hills in the prairies (southwest). The third plan (known as the Uskiy Puhco plan) was funded, developed and submitted by citizens to assist with the government’s North Central planning process in the forest (see background material for more).
Conservation-based land use planning is a method endorsed by experts. For example, in the North Central land use planning process, two plans were eventually produced – one by government and one by citizens. The citizens who produced the Uskiy Puhco plan asked respected boreal ecologists and planners from across Canada to review both the Uskiy Puhco plan and the government draft plan. Four out of four reviewers endorsed the Uskiy Puhco plan and criticized the government draft plan. In the words of reviewer Dr. Kevin Timoney, “the government has presented the people of Northern Saskatchewan with a ‘business as usual’ plan… If the people choose to acquiesce with this plan, they may lose their healthy land and water and the culture and traditions that depend on them.”
Saskatchewan citizens are the prescribed stewards of Saskatchewan’s boreal forest. We have an amazing opportunity to use the land wisely and to take care of it. Forests have long been described as the lungs of the earth and the water filtration plants of the world. As part of the great circumpolar boreal forest, our forest plays vital roles in sustaining earth’s life-support systems and global climate regulation. Half of our province is forest. The trees, lakes, rivers, marshes, uplands and wildlife are a gift. We, the citizens of Saskatchewan, are responsible for looking after it – for the world, our children, northern people, forest creatures, future generations and for a diversity of activities now and in the future. Conservation-based land use planning protects and maintains forest health, while allowing for economic development.
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Submitted by the Saskatchewan Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
Suite 203, 115-2nd Avenue Nort
h, Saskatoon, SK S7K 2B1
Phone: 306-955-6197 Fax: 306-665-2128