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Study shows lightly regulated logging threatens forests and wildlife

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 16, 2024

As a new study declares major changes are needed to protect biodiversity and wildlife in Quebec’s boreal forests, the Cree and other First Nations are increasingly resistant to forestry activities in the region. 

In the scientific journal Land, researchers analyzed data over 40 years to show the cumulative impacts of commercial logging. Intact old-growth forests most crucial to caribou and other species were found to be dwindling to “a vast scatter of patches” across “a highly anthropically disturbed forest.”

While the industry promotes its sustainable practices, plantation efforts focus on “commercially desirable” trees that maximize wood production. Researchers stated patches of older forests should be set aside and protected to restore caribou habitat and strengthen the landscape’s integrity. 

At a “Future of the Forest” roundtable with the Ministère des Ressources naturelles et des Forêts (MRNF) on February 15, Kebaowek Chief Lance Haymond alleged that MRNF consultations are “superficial” with decisions made unilaterally. Essipit Innu Chief Martin Dufour accused Quebec of seeing forests only “as an economic engine” and called for more wildlife protected areas. 

While wildlife habitat management directives were to be part of the 2002 Paix des Braves agreement’s Adapted Forestry Regime, Cree leaders express growing frustration that these are yet to be implemented. Ahead of the 2023-28 five-year-plan, the Cree Nation Government agreed to give Quebec until December 2023 to submit these guidelines and harmonize only one year of forestry planning until they were in place.

However, the province blamed last summer’s forest fires for failing to fulfill this promise, offering proposals the CNG deemed insufficient. In November, Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty informed the MRNF minister that the CNG will postpone participation in future harvesting consultations until allowable cut calculations adequately consider the loss of wildlife habitats caused by the fires. 

“Nobody ever thought forest fires would affect 36 out of 62 traplines in Waswanipi,” said Allan Saganash, a forestry consultant in Waswanipi’s Joint Working Group. “We have to calculate the disturbance. Any trapline’s protected area affected by more than 40%, they have to stop cutting.”

Dealing with forestry development since the early 1980s, Saganash has witnessed a formerly pristine territory carved up by clearcuts and 34,000km of roads, scattering wildlife and contaminating waters. An abundance of non-Native structures popping up without consent prompted the creation of a Cree land-use map.

Treaty rights now regulate these encroachments and impose limits on unchecked forestry: 3.1A of the Paix des Braves states that planning must consider the Cree way of life. But does it? As the community most impacted by forestry, with nine of the agreement’s 15 management units, Waswanipi’s consultants have extensive knowledge of Cree rights and the frustrations of local tallymen. 

“They don’t hear what the tallymen are saying, but I do,” Saganash told the Nation. “MRNF planners and forestry companies do not understand the Cree way of life. I’m not afraid to say they’re breaching the agreement when they don’t apply the wildlife directives.”

With too many of their identified wildlife areas logged to fragmentation, 50 of 56 tallymen rejected the new five-year plan. Besides the absence of special guidelines for habitat protection, the consensus among tallymen is that logging and road construction are excessive. Many also reject scarification practices that produce only rows of jack pine and spruce.

“The birch, aspen and shubbery that sprouts up naturally after a forest fire are considered weeds and plowed over,” explained tallyman Paul Dixon. “Forestry causes a lot of kill zones, not only the trees but the roots that were there thousands of years underground. The animals don’t go there.”

While the province long maintained that forestry harvests help moose populations, a 2008 study demonstrated that this species depends on mixed deciduous stands, buffers around waterways and large forest corridors to move between seasonal habitats. The Cree also use deciduous forests as firebreaks while sawmills seek only highly flammable coniferous woods. 

“The old growth forest the companies are going after were about 100 years-old, like Cadillacs,” said Dixon. “The tree plantations they’re doing now are like Mr. Bean’s car. For wildlife, it’s no different between a plastic tree or spruce seedling.”

With wildfires burning 15% of forests managed under the Paix des Braves, a total of 23 traplines in Eeyou Istchee will be closed to further logging for two to 20 years depending on the disturbance. Quebec’s chief forester was forced to recalculate the allowable cut, reducing it by 17% this year as harvesting pressure intensifies on the remaining traplines. 

Companies will be required to continue salvaging burnt wood this year in the unfinished blocks transferred from last summer when they were ordered to stop cutting in green areas. Limited by current road access, Saganash believes it’s impossible for companies to fully follow the provision that prioritizes 70% of the fire-impacted area for logging.

With fires destroying an area unimaginable to negotiators of the Paix des Braves, the Cree argue it’s even more urgent to instill wildlife directives. After Quebec rejected the 34 measures proposed by the CNG last year, interim measures to protect moose habitats were requested but also rejected. As the gap widens between forestry and tallyman interests, grievances are mounting, and some tallymen are refusing negotiation altogether.

“There are so many things to be worked on but nobody’s resolving these issues,” lamented Saganash. “I almost feel the documentation I do is useless. Everything is so lopsided – even forestry companies are there at the consultations.”

Escalating disputes with the MRNF mean more tallymen going through conciliation processes with the Cree-Quebec Forestry Board, wherein a conciliator makes recommendations and the Minister eventually makes a decision. While a previous process involving the Cooper trapline was unsuccessful, Cree dissatisfaction is so widespread that a legal battle may be looming.    

Last summer’s fires will cast a long shadow on the forestry industry, likely impacting the next decade of annual planning. Saganash believes that reaching a mutual agreement for development will require the province and industry to first acknowledge the significant disturbance that fires caused to the Cree way of life.

“People will still go in the forest where it’s burnt and rebuild their cabins,” said Saganash. “There are areas that are still green (where) only the spruce and jack pine really burned. It will take five years for moose to come back – that’s if they don’t cut the trees and ruin the soil by scarifying it.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.