A group of about two dozen rural residents of the Balfour area have asked the provincial government – again – to declare a moratorium on logging on the east side of the Laird Creek watershed.
The Laird Creek Water Users organization says the planned reopening of a deactivated logging road by Cooper Creek Cedar could repeat history by causing a landslide similar to one in 2011 that disabled the water systems of about 100 households for several weeks.
The residents have been asking for government intervention in Laird Creek logging since 2005. Their latest request is a letter to Premier Horgan dated Aug. 5.
“We have asked for a moratorium on that proposed road extension and on the cut blocks that are involved,” said Al Walters of the water users group. “We think it is very, very high risk.”
The company plans to begin road construction in mid-September.
The long-awaited terrain stability report
The residents say they have been waiting for several years for the company or the forest ministry to produce a terrain stability assessment of the slope over which the road would run. An assessment was completed this month, commissioned by Cooper Creek Cedar and written by consultant geoscientist Will Halleran, and provided to the water users group last week.
Bill Kestell of Cooper Creek Cedar told the Star that the study evaluates the stability of the terrain and makes recommendations about how to safely build a road across it.
“It identifies terrain stability concerns and provides recommendations to us that will reduce the likelihood of landslides of any size,” he said.
Backed by the Regional District of Central Kootenay, the water users group asked the provincial government in 2018 to hire an outside expert to do an independent terrain study – a study not commissioned by the company. The province declined to do so.
Kestell says he is willing to organize a field trip for residents so he can explain the plans for the road. He said the road is different from the one that ostensibly caused the slide in 2011 because it is a linear road without several switchbacks that were built above it by BC Timber Sales, the company that built the original road.
After the 2011 slide, according to Walters, BC Timber Sales provided drinking water to residents from late May until early July, and deactivated and recontoured (returned to near-natural topography) the road on the grounds that the terrain was risky.
Consultant says risk low, residents say it’s high
Referring to the section of the road directly above where the 2011 slide occurred, Halleran writes: “A slide along here poses a Moderate Hazard. Road construction will not significantly increase the Hazard.”
Regarding the effects of a slide, he writes, “The consequence of the slide is deemed low … There is low risk to water quality and infrastructure.”
Walters says Halleran has got it wrong. He says the report minimizes the seriousness of the 2011 landslide by under-reporting the duration of the disabled water supply following the slide. The report, Walters adds, overestimates the amount of turbidity that is typically in the water during the spring freshet, making the 2011 muddy drinking water appear more normal.
“It was a serious event and it went on for weeks, with water too muddy to drink,” he said. “They never came and asked anybody in the community what their experience was.
“If the landslide only resulted in a short-term degradation of water quality in 2011 [as the Halleran report states], would BC Timber Sales have gone to the considerable expense of recontouring the logging road? Why would water users continue to be as concerned about their water quality as they are?”
Walters wonders how Cooper Creek Cedar got a road construction permit from the ministry before the company had done a terrain stability study. He thinks this process is backwards.
“You don’t need to do any kind of terrain stability assessment before you apply for and are granted a road permit, which we find quite troubling,” Walters said. “It’s hard to see how this could result in public confidence in the planning process. It makes it look like a decision to get at a stand of timber predetermines access assessment.”
Kestell said the process of safety assessments and permits is part of professional reliance.
Professional reliance, known to some as industry self-regulation, is a legislated practice that allows forest companies, not the forest ministry, to decide on the safety and impact of their logging plans. They do this by hiring specialist consultants such as professional engineers, biologists, and foresters to advise them.
Under this system, companies aren’t required to inform government or the public about their cutting or road-building plans, although some do.
The B.C. Forest Practices Board and B.C. Ombudsman have both spoken out against this practice, and under pressure from the public, the province in 2018 began a formal review of it.
The result was the new Professional Governance Act of 2019, to be phased in over several years. But this new legislation doesn’t regulate the forest industry. It asks the professional associations of the private consultants — engineers, geoscientists, foresters, applied scientists, agrologists and biologists — to make sure their members stick to their ethical standards.
Even the CEO of the Registered Professional Foresters of BC, Christine Gelowitz, was skeptical. “[This] will change how professionals are governed but does nothing to change policies regulating how the environment and land base are managed,” she wrote in a 2018 article for the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals.
Along with this regulatory model, Laird Creek residents and other rural water user groups are up against a provision of the province’s Forest Planning and Practices Regulation that states the forest ministry’s objective is to prevent damage to watersheds but “only to the extent that it does not unduly reduce the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests.”