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Saskatchewan says clearcutting emulates natural forest fires and is the most sustainable way to harvest, but locals dispute these claims and question the science behind them.

Torn up trees and debris lay upon a dirt ground.
What remains of an area of forest 50 kilometres northeast of La Ronge that was clearcut two years ago.Don Somers/CBC

Franklin Carriere says he only saw one moose last winter. Meanwhile, he watched truck after truck taking out loads of lumber daily.

In more than 40 years of fur trapping near Montreal Lake, Sask., some 350 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, the 76-year-old has seen clearcutting reduce pristine forests to open prairie that looks like it has been “bombed.”

“It bothers me to see our lands disappearing in front of us,” Carriere said. “They took the trees away from us and that’s killing the people that live there.”

An older man with glasses stands in from of an open area with grass and some standing water.
Franklin Carriere looks across a piece of the trapline where he has trapped, fished and picked mushrooms and berries for decades. (Don Somers/CBC)

Carriere, a member of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, is one of many northern Saskatchewan residents concerned about the effects of clearcutting on the environment, their livelihoods and traditional ways of life.

Forestry is northern Saskatchewan’s largest industry, with nearly 8,000 jobs and another 2,600 on the way along with $1 billion in planned capital investments.

The province says clearcutting is the most sustainable way to harvest and that it emulates what happens naturally during forest fires, but locals dispute these claims and question the science behind them. They say the forest that grows back after clearcutting doesn’t provide the same habitat for animals, the same vegetation or the same quality of trees for future use as lumber.

They also say clearcutting has a huge carbon footprint and that the forestry industry isn’t being properly held accountable for its role in climate change.

Carriere said trapping is already a dwindling industry and clearcutting is making it worse. He worries about the future for young trappers.

“A trapper has to feed his family from the land. He isn’t getting enough money from the welfare system,” Carriere said.

He often traps with his friend David William Ross. They said this last winter was their worst ever. They got just five lynxes, three fishers and five martens between the two of them. They didn’t see a single rabbit.

An older man with glasses stands in front of an open area of nature with trees and water visible.
David William Ross says it will take at least 40 years for the clearcut forests to grow back, and even then they may not fully recover. (Don Somers/CBC)

Ross is also a medicine man. He uses foraged blueberries, cranberry sticks and jackpine barks for medicines, but these days can’t find much beyond some patches of crocuses.

“There should be lots more growing but it’s just dry sand,” Ross, who grew up in the region, said.

“Our future generations may have nothing. Everything is dying down slowly with clearcutting.”

Candyce Paul, a resident of English River First Nation in the boreal shield 310 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert, is in the same boat.

Paul is seeing “arid” growth after a clear cut.

“Many berry picking areas are just gone,” she said.

She said the soil quality is deteriorating. Fewer trees also mean wind flowing unabated, leading to erosion.

“It’s not the same forest and it will never be,” Paul said.

Chief Ronald Mitsuing of Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, in the western part of the province, said he cannot find elk, deer or wolves due to clearcutting.

“Our traditional way of life is affected. We cannot even go hunting because they’re logging on our traditional lands,” he said.

He said soil erosion and spring runoff are also affecting their lakes and fish.

Terry Newell, who lives near the Whiteswan Lakes, some 164 kilometres south of La Ronge, said clearcutting is causing mercury poisoning in the community.

Water covers most of a flat area of land with a treeline in the distance.
A few trees poke out from water covering most of a flat area of land.
Pieces of wood of varying sizes lie in a pile in an area that has been clear cut.
A few thin trees poke up from an area that is mostly devoid of tree cover.
Scenes from the Whelan Bay area, which was clear cut recently. (Submitted by Terry Newell)

His family and other Métis residents who eat fish from these lakes have recently been diagnosed with high levels of mercury.

“Clearcutting close to the lakes causes eroding banks containing mercury in the soil to end up in the lake,” Newell said.

Scientific research indicates that clearcut logging in the boreal forest can raise mercury levels in local fish above the limit for safe human consumption.

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Dave Rondeau, a community-oriented historian and co-ordinator for Crutwell Métis Local 66, said logging is stripping the land of history and culture.

Rondeau has recorded 26 historically and politically significant sites within 20 kilometres of his home. He says many are now at risk of being erased by logging.

He points to the Lower Hudson House site, a former fur trading post on the North Saskatchewan River about 50 km west of Prince Albert. It’s in the process of being designated a Heritage Site.

“But they are logging close to it and inching in,” Rondeau said.

Rondeau said the area was also a burial site for many who died in the smallpox epidemic of the 1780s. He said the industry needs to acknowledge this history.

‘Clearcutting and burns are different like night and day’

CBC made multiple requests to Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Environment for interviews with current minister Dana Skoropad and former minister Warren Kaeding, but they were not made available before publication time.

In an emailed statement, the ministry said forest companies are required to harvest in a way that “emulates, as closely as possible, the patterns of natural disturbances, such as wildfire.”

“This means generally larger areas of disturbance, with mature trees maintained within and between harvested areas, as single trees, clumps, and islands, as a wildfire would do.”

The ministry said that for the past 15 years, forestry companies have harvested about 16,000 hectares of Saskatchewan forest each year, compared to more than 650,000 hectares burned by wildfires on average.

During the 2020-21 fiscal year, the commercial forestry harvest in Saskatchewan was 41 per cent of the maximum amount that would be sustainable, the ministry said.

Paul disagreed with the notion of clearcutting being similar to a natural burn, saying the forest doesn’t recover as quickly.

“Clearcutting and burns are different like night and day. I see places where the growth after the burn is lush,” she said.

“In the clearcut, there is hardly anything growing yet and it doesn’t have the health that the rejuvenated forest on its own natural path has.”

Paul has seen these differences along Highway 155, where there was a burn some 20 years ago. She said the forest there is growing back healthy compared to an area clear cut around the same time.

A 2011 study of these differences states “a large body of scientific literature shows that many of the ecological impacts of forest harvesting, particularly clearcutting, and wildfire differ in important ways and that it is erroneous to assume that forest harvesting plays the same ecological role as wildfire.”

Miriam Körner, who lives in La Ronge, uses a forest about 50 kilometres southeast of the city as an example. It’s growing back from a clearcut decades ago. The ground there is arid, with moss almost non-existent.

A woman with glasses stands in front of an area that is devoid of standing trees but has piles of logs.
Körner said the definition of sustainable harvesting in the province needs to be questioned, as 'clearcutting impacts the whole ecosystem.' (Don Somers/CBC)

The area around Körner’s home in La Ronge is old growth forest that has never been commercially harvested. Standing in her backyard, you can hear ravens, woodpeckers and kestrels singing. At the spot 50 kilometres away growing back from the clearcut, there are no bird sounds.

Past research says clearcutting often results in monoculture, meaning only one type of tree grows back. Körner said climate change effects like drought also make regrowth even more susceptible to insect infestations.

The environment ministry said large forest licence holders are required to develop long-term, strategic forest management plans for their areas that must include “a vulnerability assessment to address climate change.”

Körner says it isn’t working.

“I call them plantations, not even forests, the trees that are growing back.”

A flat piece of wood fills much of the frame, with a clear cut area visible around it.
Some unhealthy looking trees grow from a sandy patch of ground.
A small bit of pine tree pokes up from a bit of sandy ground.
A pine tree branch is discolored orange.
Miriam Körner gives several examples of how clear-cut areas do not grow back the same as those lost to wildfire. They include a loss of ground moss, top right, only one type of tree growing back, also known as a monoculture, bottom left, and problems with disease, bottom right. (Don Somers/CBC)

Perry Zelensky, who co-owns Zelensky Brothers Sawmill in La Ronge, says the difference shows up in the trees that come to his mill.

Last winter, they procured wood from an area that was previously harvested 30 years ago.

“It didn’t work very well. The second growth of timber was very poor,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky gets much of his timber from Bigstone lake area, but says it has started to “get thin.”

A man with a yellow safety vest stands in front of a lumber mill.
Perry Zelensky says his small mill employs 12 people and has produced a million feet of lumber since January this year. He said this is 'not a big amount' compared to larger mills. (Don Somer/CBC)

The 59-year-old said there is no consensus on proper harvesting in the industry.

“At one time, it was selective harvesting. But it doesn’t work. To get the same volume of timber for your mill, you have to cut twice the area,” Zelensky said.

He said selective harvesting also damages the roots, leading to poor and improper growth.

While a process is underway in British Columbia to temporarily defer logging in priority old-growth forests, the industry is expanding in Saskatchewan.

With an additional $400,000 from the 2022-23 provincial budget, the ministry continues to invest in an updated forest resource inventory for Saskatchewan’s commercial forest zone, which includes approximately 15 million hectares of forest south of the Churchill River.

“We may be over-harvesting in the province. With large mills and the pulp mill reopening, the province will have to look closely at that,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky said demand for lumber is strong and prices are high.

Two large piles of two-by-four boards sit in front of a lumber mill.
Two workers stack two-by-four boards.
Work underway at Perry Zelensky's mill near La Ronge. (Don Somers/CBC)

Though fuel prices and inflation do adversely affect the inputs, he said if the demand remains consistent and a pulp mill in Prince Albert reopens next year as planned, foresters will make their way north into the shield.

Körner said the government is incentivizing the logging companies to move further north by reducing stumpage fees.

For example, in most of the province, the fee to take black and white spruce and lodgepole pine larger than 15 centimetres in diameter is $80.63 per cubic metre. In the Northern Dues Zone — which starts at the province’s northern border and stretches down over about 42 per cent of the province’s total land mass — it is $2.60 per cubic metre.

A map shows the province of Saskatchewan with a line meandering across it about two thirds of the way up, bisecting the province.
The Northern Dues Zone, which is made up of everything above the yellow line on this map, covers 42 per cent of the province's land area. (Government of Saskatchewan)

State of forest management plans

Commercial logging has been occurring in Saskatchewan for well over 100 years.

In Saskatchewan, a hectare of forest yields about 150 cubic meters of wood on average.

According to Global Forest Watch, Saskatchewan had 25,300,000 hectares of trees — covering about 39 per cent of its land area — in 2010. In 2021 alone, it lost 469,000 hectares of tree cover combined from forest fires and human activities, enough to cover more than 3,000,000 NHL hockey rinks.

From 2001 to 2021, northern Saskatchewan lost 6,250,000 hectares of relative tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.

According to a 2019 report from the environment ministry, licensees must adhere to the harvest volume schedule in each licensed area to prevent overharvesting. The province’s current forest management plans are stated below:

A graphic outlnes some of the forestry management plans currently in place in Saskatchewan.
A look at current forest management plans in Saskatchewan. (CBC Graphics)

Sakâw Askiy Management Inc., a corporation responsible for 3.3 million hectares of boreal forest north of Prince Albert, has created a 20-year forest management plan for the area.

Sakâw Askiy’s plan includes about 19,900 hectares per year harvested in the first decade and 18,800 hectares per year in the second decade.

“By the time Sakâw Askiy is done with their plans, there will be no more forests,” Körner said.

“We do need lumber but we also are in a climate crisis. What’s the cost of losing boreal forests?”

Asked for comment, Sakâw Askiy Management general manager Diane Roddy provided a statement detailing how much forest it has harvested in recent years as well as some information on its methods.

“The amount of wood that can be harvested is like the interest on a bank account. If you want to keep what’s in the account for future generations, you live off the interest that the account is generating. In forestry, you calculate the growth of the trees, and don’t harvest more than what is growing,” Roddy said.

“People will see a lot of harvesting activity in an area when it is due for harvesting, because harvesting will be concentrated there. However companies are not permitted to exceed the sustainable harvest over any five-year period, and never have.”

She said the acreage approved in the company’s 20-year plan is about double what will actually be harvested.

“The areas requested for approval in the first year of harvesting encompass at least twice the annual volume of wood that can be harvested. This is because extra contingency areas are included, since factors such as weather, markets, wildfires, contractor and equipment availability, and stakeholder concerns change even the best-laid plans,” she said.

Roddy also pointed out that trees have natural life cycles and will die naturally over the course of time.

“The harvesting of mature trees suitable for making forest products, and natural disturbances, start the forest life cycle again and create young healthy and vigorous forests that are more resistant to climate change,” she said.

Pushback efforts

Some groups are pushing back and trying to get moratoriums on clearcutting declared in some areas of the province.

Franklin Carriere, the trapper from the Montreal lake area, acts as the chairman for 68 trappers who work in one specific fur block — an area designated by the province for trapping. In 2019, he wrote Saskatchewan’s Minister of Environment Dustin Duncan to request a moratorium on logging in that block.

“Even after 40 years, when the trees are 20 feet tall, the animals do not come back to these areas,” Carriere wrote.

The request was denied.

“The loggers come here pre-approved. The government is not following through on duty to consult,” Carriere said.

Quincy Miller, Körner’s partner, says he grew up watching patches of 40 caribou regularly near Weyakwin lake.

Between the late 1980s and early 2000s, a major chunk of the area was heavily logged. Now, he says there aren’t any caribou, “strictly because of logging.”

A man sits on a log in the middle of a messy area full of bits of wood.
Quincy Miller says the government didn't start collecting baseline numbers for caribou populations until after clearcutting began. (Don Somers/CBC)

A group of five Métis locals in northern Saskatchewan are also raising concerns about the Ministry of Environment’s 20-year forestry plan, covering the years 2021-2041, for the Island Forests, a group of forests in north-central Saskatchewan.

The locals say up to 64 per cent of the Island Forests will be harvested, threatening people’s rights and livelihoods.

The group submitted a consultation report to the government outlining concerns.

Notably, the report questions the research the province has used to back up its claims that clearcutting emulates forest fires.

The ministry said its approach is supported by scientific research from Dr. David Andison on how science can help guide forest and ecosystem-based management.

The Island Forests group’s report highlights areas of Andison’s work that seem to contradict the ministry’s claims.

“Dr. Andison concludes that wildfires are very complex and that clear-cutting does not in fact emulate forest fires,” the consultation report says, citing past work by Andison.

“His research demonstrates that forest fires do not make trees disappear, but rather create more complex, healthy, and dynamic ecosystems that support habitat creation and preservation, and more rapid regeneration.”

The group’s report also questions the forestry plan’s ability to track its effects on local animal populations.

The plan designates moose, fisher and the Canada warbler as “indicator species” to assess the health of the forest. But the group learned from Forest Management that there were no updated numbers for those species.

“If you have no baseline information, how do you know what the impact on forest health is?” the group’s report asks.

“The 20-year forest plan will only monitor what is left of the indicator species after the forest is harvested.”

Gord Vaadeland, executive director at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Saskatchewan, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of healthy forest and grassland ecosystems in Saskatchewan, said these concerns are valid.

“Saskatchewan is very data deficient when it comes to wildlife and the state of forests. We have good data on what’s marketable, what is harvestable timber, but not on its impacts, especially to wildlife,” Vaadeland said.

Canada warbler is already listed under the federal Species at Risk Act. Vaadeland said this logging will also impact caribou activities, as they thrive where there are no people.

Vaadeland pointed to Quebec, where 35,000 square kilometres of forest was designated as off-limits for forestry “as caribou will be put first.” He says such efforts need to happen more often across Canada.’

Climate change not being factored in

All the people CBC spoke with for this story were concerned about how logging practices impact the climate.

David Sauchyn, director at Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, said Northern Saskatchewan will be warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world, close to the “largest rate of global warming in the world.”

Sauchyn’s team recently examined trees as old as 170 years in northern Saskatchewan. By looking at the trees’ growth, they could draw conclusions about what the climate looked like at different times.

Their findings lined up with knowledge from Indigenous elders in the community.

“The climate is changing dramatically. The models are telling us that we can expect wetter conditions in winters and springs and drier conditions in the summers in an average year.”

Drier summers can mean more forest fires, and the loss of lakes and wetlands, Sauchyn said.

“If you introduce forestry operations, mining and such, they are additional stressors on the ecosystem,” he said.

“The tension always exists between the economic development, job creation and removal of the trees. But it has to be done in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the integrity of the ecosystem and other users of the forest.”

A Nature Canada report from last year concluded that the logging industry in Canada continues to clear cut more than 400,000 hectares of boreal forest each year — about five NHL hockey rinks every minute — much of it irreplaceable.

Additionally, Canada has created accounting and regulatory loopholes for the logging industry’s carbon impacts.

“Because the Government of Canada’s carbon pricing policy does not include a price on forest carbon emissions, the logging industry is exempt from any regulation of emissions from its logging practices,” the report read.

“From accounting to regulation, the logging industry benefits from a policy regime that allows it to avoid accountability for its climate impacts.”

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Saskatchewan’s environment ministry says “forests are renewable” and “if we do not manage our forests, they will renew themselves by natural means.”

But the forests — and the amount of carbon they pull from the atmosphere — cannot be restored immediately.

“Even if the forest eventually returns to maturity, it can take centuries to compensate for clearcutting’s impact on the climate,” the Nature Canada report says.

According to a 2003 study by Michael Fitzsimmons, an environmental consultant, deforestation in Saskatchewan may release more carbon in the province than fuel burned for agriculture.

“If you actually knock down a forest, you don’t pay any carbon tax on that,” Fitzsimmons said.

“Historically, about a third of releases of carbon to the atmosphere come not from fossil fuels but from deforestation, where we knock down forests and not let them regrow. That’s ongoing in Saskatchewan.”

According to Fitzsimmons, deforested sites contain 30 to 75 fewer tonnes of carbon per hectare than equivalent forest sites. Thus, ongoing forest degradation in boreal Saskatchewan is intensifying climate breakdown.

IPCAs a possible solution

In November 2019, several groups concerned about the loss of boreal forests started working toward the creation of a Métis-specific Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) in northern Saskatchewan.

They hope to protect the N14 Fur Block, an area of 22,000 square kilometres of boreal forest around Île-à-la-Crosse, approximately 425 kilometres north of Saskatoon. The area has been home to Métis, Cree and Dene peoples for hundreds of years.

An aerial shot shows a river flowing through an area full of bright green foliage.
An island covered in green groth sits within a body of water.
A wetland made of water and grenery sits among other green foliage.
An aerial shot depicts a small town near a lake.
Views of the scenery in the 22,000 square kilometres of boreal forest around Île-à-la-Crosse that the Sakitawak IPCA is hoping to protect. The bottom right photo shows the town of Île-à-la-Crosse. (Jeremy Williams)

If the group is successful, some areas covered by the IPCA could be designated as buffer zones where logging would be prohibited.

They are calling it the Sakitawak IPCA. Sakitawak is a Cree word meaning “where the rivers meet.”

Their goal is to protect habitats of vulnerable species including the woodland caribou, moose, old-growth pine, migratory birds, and various fish species.

A man wearing a camouflage jacket and a baseball cap looks out across a river.
Peter Durocher says the climate is drastically changing in the community of Île-à-la-Crosse. (Jeremy Williams)

“If we lose the trees, we lose our way of life and Saskatchewan will lose its ability to protect all important aspects of a healthy ecosystem in the boreal,” Peter Durocher, the group’s manager, said.

Durocher has witnessed drastic changes over the past 30 years. He remembers his mother telling him about the long periods of -40 C to -50 C during winters in the 1940s to 1950s.

“Now, you’re lucky to get -40 for three days here. Winters are a lot warmer. A lot of birds have disappeared. Frogs have declined significantly over the past 20 years,” he said.

A hoofprint in the snow sits in the middle of the frame.
Caribou tracks in the forest area that the Sakitawak IPCA group hopes to protect. (Kelly Patrick/Sakitawak IPCA)

Elders and other community members have told Durocher there are birds and insects in the area that were never found there before.

Some areas around the community were logged 30 to 40 years ago. Now, they are monocultures of “aspen trees, with no pine or spruce trees,” Durocher says.

In contrast, other areas not logged are “pristine diverse forests.”

Durocher says the provincial and federal governments don’t listen to Indigenous knowledge. For instance, Durocher says they need to realize that caribou are an “old growth species” and don’t flourish in newer forests.

He said that while the government bragged about making a record $1.8 billion in forestry sales last year, the money “sure didn’t come to us in the North here.”

Kelly Patrick, director of the Sakitawak IPCA, said it is wrong to depict forestry as a job creation avenue for Indigenous people.

She said the ICPA is trying to protect the 110 traplines within the N-14 Fur Block, which she said would be the third-largest block in Canada.

There are three fully established IPCAs in Canada, all in N.W.T., but groups across Canada are working on trying to establish 34 others.

The next step for the Sakitawak group is to compile all the information collected over the last two years to create a conservation management plan to share with the province, which will then determine the IPCA’s fate.

In partnership with other research organizations, they have found that the total organic carbon stored by the N14 fur block, wetland and upland areas combined is approximately 823 million tonnes, which is equivalent to the total annual CO2 emissions from about 179 million cars.

According to WWF Canada, the total carbon stock for all of Saskatchewan is 16.02 billion tonnes. Of that, the average density of carbon in Saskatchewan soil is 26.85 kilogram per meter square and the average density of carbon in biomass sits at 1.80 kilogram per meter square.

Two maps show statistics about carbon storage in Saskatchewan.
These maps from WWF Canada show the amount of carbon, left, and the density of carbon stored in the ground across Saskatchewan (WWF Canada)

Durocher said though their part of the community is a “teardrop in the middle of the boreal”, it’s their future. He hopes it motivates other communities in the province to use ICPAs to protect their lands.

“If more of us get involved, we can eventually protect enough boreal forest to keep the carbon in the ground and reverse climate change,” he said.

“I want people to know that it’s not just a forest, it’s our land and way of life and we want to keep it that way. If we don’t protect our old forests, my grandkids and great grandkids will have nothing to look forward to.”

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