Why new logging roads in Quebec must be stopped

In Central Quebec, a small Cree community is anxiously monitoring a proposal by 5 logging companies that would bring logging to the doorstep of the last untouched segment of the forest that makes up their ancestral homeland. If approved, the proposal[1] would bring the construction of two new logging roads, totaling 45 miles in length, which will facilitate nearly 300,000 acres (the equivalent of 210,000 football fields) of new logging[2] — almost all of it in large clearcuts — in old growth forest. These roads would be graveled, 100-foot wide affairs[3] that will become permanent fixtures on the landscape and provide access into a massive forest that has remained roadless, and largely untouched, despite the constant northern march of industrial logging. Building these roads would bring the logging industry to the doorstep of the Broadback River watershed, an area singled out by this Waswanipi Cree community for protection as the final, unexploited remnant of their traditional territory. Sadly, the cutting of these forests is largely being driven by U.S. demand for forests products[4]— a reality that should open the eyes of U.S. consumers to the impacts our purchasing habits are having on our neighbors to the north.

A fresh clearcut just south of the community of Waswanipi in Central Quebec. Photo by Josh Axelrod, 2015.

The story behind the proposal of these roads goes back several years. In 2009, a Canadian logging company called Materiaux Blanchet[5] proposed the construction of several logging roads that would have extended Quebec’s unfathomable network of forest roads[6] northward. Building these roads would have opened up a massive area of untouched boreal forest to clearcut logging. At the same time, the Quebec government authorized logging operations by Canada’s largest logging company — Resolute Forest Products — on land protected by the Baril-Moses Agreement, which covered Cree traplines[7] that had not been protected under an earlier agreement known as the Paix des Braves.[8] Each of these actions placed enormous areas of untouched forest at risk of destruction from clearcutting and the road building necessary for access. With the immediate threat of more logging at their doorstep, the Cree Nation filed suit against the Quebec government for $13 million for breaching the Baril-Moses Agreement. Together, this chain of events led Materiaux Blanchet to suspend its effort to build new roads, while Resolute Forest Products saw their Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certificate applicable to the area under dispute suspended for “major non-conformances and non-compliances” in relation to “Indigenous Peoples’ rights, environmental impact, forest benefits, monitoring and assessment, and High Conservation Value forests.”

Snapshot of existing roads in the area just south of the Broadback River valley. Map courtesy of Greenpeace.

These events triggered new negotiations between the Cree First Nation and the Quebec government to define areas that would be protected from logging in the hope that forests covered by Cree traplines that had not yet been logged would be spared from the impacts already witnessed further south. Six years later, in July of 2015, a partial resolution was reached: nearly 2.3 million acres of forest north of the Broadback River was set aside for boreal forest protection, ensuring that this area will never be open to logging in the future. While this was a positive step for many stakeholders, a significant majority of this land had already been burned by wildfires or was “off limits” to logging due to the existence of a northern limit for commercial development (generally following the 52nd parallel). One community in particular — the Waswanipi Cree — saw the agreement as out of step with what they had been negotiating for, and traveled to Quebec City to protest its signing.

The dotted line indicates the borders of Waswanipi’s protection proposal, while the diagnol hash marks show the extent of the lands protected by the Baril Moses dispute settlement agreement of 2015. Map courtesy of Greenpeace.

The reason for their opposition? Despite more than a decade of asking the Quebec government to protect forests north and south of the Broadback River, the July 2015 agreement provided only a sliver of protection at the northern border of Waswanipi’s traditional territory. At the same time, the agreement contained a provision whereby Materiaux Blanchet’s logging roads proposal could move forward once again — threatening the creation of two roads located entirely on Waswanipi lands and piercing toward the heart of the Waswanipi’s few remaining intact traplines. This time, Materiaux Blanchet has joined forces with Scierie Landrienne, Tembec, Eacom Timber Corp., and Resolute Forest Products, a consortium of companies responsible for the majority of active logging currently underway in Central Quebec. Review of the project is underway with Quebec’s Environmental and Social Impact Review Committee (known as the “COMEX”), which has thus far been unwilling to heed calls for an updated environmental impact statement (EIS), despite the project’s scope being changed since 2009 and an EIS more than six years old. Instead, the COMEX is expected to make its recommendation for approval or denial of the proposal in the next week, leaving the fate of this critically important intact forest in the hands of the Deputy Minister of Quebec’s Ministry of the Environment.

A tiny piece of the old growth forest within the Broadback River valley. Greenpeace photo.

Back in the Broadback River valley, the Cree have voluntarily given up hunting woodland caribou as the species struggles against extinction brought on by logging and the construction of roads. For the Waswanipi, reality is even starker: since the 1950s, they have seen 59 of their 62 traplines destroyed or fragmented by logging and mining. According to the Waswanipi Cree, only 10% of their traditional territory is now left intact and this same area is threatened by the roads proposal which would enable 280,000 acres of logging within the next few years. Look a little bit farther and one wonders if there is any chance that their fight to preserve the Broadback River watershed could succeed with the industry having cut its way right to the very borders of a vast, untouched forest.

Location of the Broadback River valley. Map courtesy of Greenpeace.

The forest within the Broadback watershed plays an increasingly important role as one of the final standing pieces of virgin boreal forest within Quebec’s commercial logging zone. Within this zone, only 10% of the remaining forest is intact — including the Broadback River valley — while the rest has already been fragmented by roads or cleared by logging. Across the entire watershed, more than 5 million acres of old growth spruce and pine grow among a network of vast rivers and lakes and make up one of the last great wilderness areas in Quebec. It is a refuge for several endangered species, including woodland caribou, wolverine, and golden and bald eagles. For one species in particular — woodland caribou — the conservation of the Broadback watershed may be one of its best hopes for survival. As the forest on nearly all sides has slowly been degraded and roads have slowly cut up areas that were once intact for hundreds of miles, the herds in the Broadback River watershed have rapidly disappeared. Today, only a few hundred individuals are known to survive in the area.

Human impacts on Canada’s boreal forest. Map courtesy of IBCC.

On a larger scale, the fight to save the Broadback River valley and the surrounding watershed encapsulates issues affecting huge portions of the Canadian boreal forest, and by extension, all of us. The boreal forest stretches around the northern hemisphere, with the one of the largest portions stretching across Canada’s northern latitudes. It is a forest of extraordinary ecological value, providing habitat to billions of North American songbirds and storing more carbon than South America’s Amazon. As the threat of climate change grows, natural resources like the boreal represent one of our best tools for mitigating the most dangerous impacts flowing from a warming planet. But the Canadian boreal has seen massive degradation over the last century and continues to face threats from large-scale clearcutting that has left only a small fraction of commercially harvestable timber still standing.[9]

A fresh logging road cut into Quebec’s boreal forest. Liz Barratt-Brown photo, 2015.

In the aftermath of the northward march of logging, forests are left fragmented, regeneration of tree cover is slow, and soils are left disturbed and less effective at storing the world’s carbon. Meanwhile, the traditional territories of Indigenous Peoples who have lived, stewarded, and thrived on these lands for hundreds if not thousands of years are slowly being destroyed. The plants and animals that have provided sustenance and shaped their cultures are disappearing. When we think of building new roads into areas where roads have never been, we need to think of all that has already been done before. Forty-five miles of logging roads may seem like a drop in the bucket, but just to the south of this proposal, the forest is a checkerboard of clearcuts for as far as the eye can see, and nearly 19,000 miles of logging roads have permanently fragmented what was once a forest of extraordinary size and ecological value.

[1] See pg. 3.

[2] See pg. 5.

[3] See pg. 11.

[4] According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN), nearly 80% of Quebec’s forest resource exports were sent to the U.S. market. In terms of dollar value, 70% of these exports were in the form of “pulp and paper products.”

[5] Materiaux Blanchet was joined, at the time, by Scierie Landrienne, AbitibiBowater, and Norbord.

[6] See pg. 8.

[7] A “trapline” is more than just an area in which a family hunts. Traditionally, traplines were areas under the care and protection of a designated member of a family who is entrusted with the stewardship of the land within its boundaries to ensure that that persons family and future generations of their family continues to benefit from the resources found in the area. Thus, they are both areas used by families for hunting and a way means for conserving and managing important natural resources.

[8] A complete history of these agreements can be read in summary here: http://gcc.ca/newsarticle.php?id=412.

[9] See pg. 57. In 2004, only 15% of commercially viable forests in Quebec remained intact, given annual harvest rates, it is estimated that this number has now dropped to 10% at the most.

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