Fiber over fish: The debacle in the Highwood shows the true allegiance of Alberta’s UCP Government

Fiber over fish: The debacle in the Highwood shows the true allegiance of Alberta’s UCP Government

One of the hottest topics in Alberta right now is water security, and the looming threat of severe and prolonged droughts, both now and in the future. This risk is greatest in the dry agricultural regions in the south of our province, which rely on water from the Bow and Oldman rivers and their tributaries. These rivers supply essential drinking water for major cities, including Calgary, Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat, provide the lifeblood for the farming and ranching industries, and support highly valued and legally protected fish species at-risk, including some the provinces last remaining populations of native westslope cutthroat trout.

Despite this, the UCP government continues to deploy their trademark “act first, consult later” strategy when it comes to resources extraction in these important habitats. The debacle that has unfolded in the upper Highwood river is the perfect example of this; once again, the planned harvest in the area reveals this administrations allergy to scientific evidence, thoughtful long-term planning, and the legal responsibilities they have to protect fish and fish habitat. In this article I’ll dive into some nuances of this planned harvest, the implications it could have on fish and water, and suggest ways you can make your voice heard.

First, for any who are unfamiliar, let me bring you up to speed. The planned harvest in the upper Highwood River encompasses an area nearly 1200 hectares in size adjacent to the mainstem Highwood River and throughout the Loomis Creek drainage. The original proponent for the project was Spray Lakes Sawmills (SLS), whose environmental track record was questionable to say the least. The company possessed exclusive forestry rights to a vast area of the eastern slopes between Banff and Crowsnest pass through two different Forest Management Agreements (FMA’s) granted by the Government of Alberta. These two FMA’s encompass an area close to 500,000 Ha in size.

What is an FMA? An FMA is a special type of forestry tenure in Alberta. It is a long-term (20 year), area based tenure which essentially guarantees exclusive timber access to one company. These tenures are typically the most preferred type of tenure for forestry companies as it allows for long-term planning and consistent mid-term timber supply. Under this ‘results-based’ framework, it is the responsibility of the tenure holder to meet objectives laid out by the Government in the Forests Act, which includes watershed protection, maintenance of biodiversity, and the protection of wildlife.

The initial work for logging in the area was started by SLS in 2023, and included the construction of an access bridge over the Highwood River without a permit. Not only was this bridge lacking a permit, it likely violated the Provincial Wildlife Act and the Federal Species at Risk Act, which affords legal protections for cutthroat trout and bull trout. The company was able to avoid any legal downfall, and was more recently sold to BC forestry giant West Fraser, who now assumes control over the project in the Highwood as well as the vast area contained in these FMA’s.

West Fraser initially announced intentions to log the upper Highwood/Loomis area in 2024 and 2025, however this plan has been met with many concerns, causing West Fraser to announce they will delay operations to allow for more consultation. Similarly, the companies intentions to log the area near the Moose Mountain recreational trails has also been met with widespread controversy.

Individually, both of these situations have some concerning elements. For example, in the case of Moose Mountain, the Government shows the audacity to charge people $90 a year to access the area for recreation while simultaneously allowing extensive logging operations that will drastically decrease the access and enjoyment of recreation there. The Highwood situation shows how FMA tenure holders often lack accountability for their actions, even when these actions are criminal offenses. Yet, the emergence of both controversies reveals a problem that goes well beyond the impacts of two projects.

Recently, funding from CPAWS and other grassroots organizations resulted in a scientific assessment of the proposed logging in the Highwood. Led by biologist’s David Mayhood and Joshua Killeen, both experts with several decades of experience, the study tells a compelling story of the types of impacts we could expect from logging in headwaters. While it assessed this specific project, its findings are applicable to all of the headwater areas that are slated for logging in the near future. Communicating these results was part of my goal for this article. You can find the technical report here (it is also great for providing background info).

Upon reading this report, I was prompted to look into the General Development Plans produced by West Fraser Cochrane for their recent Open house (found here), which reveal a troubling trend of intense forestry operations in many of Alberta’s most cherished fishing streams (and important water sources). In the next five years, the headwaters of all of these streams, which may be familiar to anglers, will be harvested: Fallentimber Creek (732 ha), Grease Creek/upper Little Red Deer River (1061 ha), Highwood River (1206 ha), Jumpingpound Creek (471 ha), Mclean Creek (405 ha), upper/lower Livingstone (106 ha), Daisy Creek (353 ha), Dutch Creek (158.2 ha), Vicary creek (84.3). Essentially, an exhaustive sample of headwater streams from watersheds offering the best fishing opportunities in southern Alberta.

More important than the fishing quality in these stream is the water quality, quantity, and availability. Millions of downstream users rely on this, and securing the regions water resources has never been more critical. For the sake of this broader, more important argument, wild fish serve as the perfect proxy for the status of our water. However, the future as it currently stands shows a systematic destruction of forests in our headwater areas, based on the status-quo forestry standards that have clearly been inadequate at maintaining natural fluvial process. In this regard, the Government of Alberta gambles with our future water supply by blatantly ignoring scientific evidence. They further disregard their responsibility to protect westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout, a legal responsibility they appear to view as an inconvenient barrier for their efforts to squeeze every royalty dollar they can out of the eastern slopes, regardless of the legacy it may leave Alberta.

Conserving Water Starts with Conserving Headwaters

It is well documented that roadbuilding and clearcutting activities like the ones planned in all of these areas leads to degraded stream conditions and altered hydrological cycles. The pattern commonly seen is a shorter and more intense spring freshet followed by lower flows later in the summer, when the water is most needed. Intact forests on the other hand retain more water in soils and underground aquifers, as deep root networks allow for water to be stored away and released later in the season.

The problems don’t end there. Other common changes associated with logging headwaters is increased water temperatures, less channel complexity, and increased sedimentation, all factors likely to negatively impact bull trout and cutthroat trout. Several studies have shown bull trout abundance’s decrease as road densities increases, and the density of roads is one of the strongest and most widely used predictors of bull trout abundance. The project in the Highwood will be facilitated by the construction of 23.9 km of new roads, nearly doubling the road density in the basin. Furthermore, 73 % of the new roads will be within 100 m of a stream (see below).

The proposed activities in the Upper Highwood. The shaded areas show future cutblocks while the red shows the vast network of new roads that will be built (source: Mayhood and Killeen 2024)

Logging of this magnitude at this spatial scale blatantly contradicts what is required for meaningful conservation of cutthroat trout and bull trout. What both species need is large areas devoid of human disturbances, where natural fluvial processes remain unaltered. For bull trout, there is no back-up, as they are not viable hatchery animals, nor have many other enhancement techniques been very successful. The overwhelming best choice for the conservation of the species is habitat protection, usually at large spatial scales.

Obviously, there is a give and take here. While halting all operations and turning the whole area into a park is probably not feasible, what is unacceptable is allowing “status-quo” logging practices in these streams which clearly have heightened importance, both for water and native fish conservation. Heightened precautions must be put in place to minimize the impacts, such as mandatory/increased riparian buffers, variable retention harvests, or other such practices that could allow logging to continue with less impacts. These operations need to be halted until West Fraser Cochrane can produce a long-term plan that clearly articulates how they are going to prevent the common impacts of logging… On that note, maybe the Alberta government could do the same? I personally would like an explanation of how logging our headwater streams is part of a long-term water sustainability plan?

What can you do to stop this?

As Albertans, we should be extremely concerned about this laissez-faire approach to logging. It indicates the true allegiance of our Government, and shows they are willing to sacrifice important long-term values for short-term economic gains. The overwhelming concern I have heard regarding these two proposals shows that Albertans do not support this. Now, the Government and West Fraser Cochrane needs to hear these misgivings loud and clear. By putting the pressure on them, we can push towards developing thoughtful long-term plans and hold both the Government and the company accountable for their responsibilities to fish and Albertans.

The first step you can take is reach out to your elected officials with a letter, email, or phone call. Logical public servants to contact include the minister of Forestry and Parks, Todd Loewen (E:, P: 780 644-7353). Particularly, you could ask him about the following mandate (from his mandate letter):

“Developing a plan with industry to use active forestry and grasslands management techniques to maintain the health and biodiversity of provincial lease lands and provide nature-based solutions for carbon sequestration.”

Apparently this “nature based solution” is clearcutting… How interesting. You could also reach out the minster of Environment and Protected Areas, Rebecca Schulz (E:, P: 780 427-2391), and ask her how the proposed logging is aligned with the goals and responsibilties outlined in the South Saskatchewan regional plan. For example, the following (taken from regional plan):

“the Government of Alberta actively monitors, detects and manages any significant forest health issues that threaten values provided by the forest including timber and ecological functions.”

I recommend calling these folks to voice your concerns. I would also contact West Fraser Cochrane and voice your concerns directly to them (P: 403-932-2234). Lastly, your local MLA is more likely to engage with you compared to these folks, so they can be a good person to contact with your concerns, since it is there job to represent the views of their constituents.

To make sure you are staying informed and engaging with positive people who share your concerns about the future of our headwaters, I recommend joining this facebook group. This page is a great forum for sharing concerns, and lots of very interesting content and viewpoints get posted there regularly.

Finally, financially supporting grassroots organizations such as CPAW’s Southern Alberta is a great way to get your money working towards the collective goal of protecting these fish (bushwhackers fly-fishing just made a $350 donation, thanks to YOU!). For example, the study by Mayhood and Killeen was provided by CPAW’s and it provides scientific information that confirms the risks of logging these habitats. These types of publications are important for providing the basis for why we should NOT log these systems (however they should be paid for by the government, not the public).

I have sat back and watched this situation unfold for a while, but finally decided it was time to voice my opinion. Logging practices and land-use planning frameworks are in desperate need of reform in the province, and the time to put pressure on is NOW, before it’s too late. Good government decisions should reflect the best scientific information, and in this regard, there is simply no defense for the type of logging that is about to be unleashed on our headwaters. Let us pray that the government once again realizes we will not sit back idly and allow this to happen. We will fight for our fish, forests, and streams, because it’s never been more clear that our Government will not.

Thank you for reading! Remember, you can financially support my work through various methods. Head to this page to find out how!

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