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Comox Lake watershed logging under the microscope following boil water advisory

Comox Valley Echo - Drew A. Penner, February 19, 2015

Comox Lake watershed logging under the microscope following boil water advisory
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Photo by Drew A. Penner

Logging in the Comox Lake watershed, Fall 2014.

Logging company officials maintain harvesting increases in the Comox Lake watershed in recent decades had nothing to do with the extended boil water advisory in the Courtenay area. But as more severe storms wreck havoc on the ecosystem, which provides the drinking water for tens of thousands in the Comox Valley, a local conservation group says it's time to rethink forestry practices.
"What's the right level of logging in the watershed? That's what we have to figure out," said David Stapley, project manager with the Comox Valley Conservation Strategy Community Partnership (CVCSCP). "We believe from our research that it contributes to turbidity pollution in the lake when we have these high rainfall and snow events."
Logging has come into focus in the wake of a one-and-a-half month boil water advisory in the Comox Valley, something that will be addressed at a forum called Re-Think Our Watershed to be held Feb. 24 at the Stan Hagen Theatre. CVCSCP is organizing the event which will feature a presentation from a TimberWest Corp. representative, the company most active in the watershed.
Neither BC Hydro nor the Comox Valley Regional District have evidence that logging was directly responsible for the elevated turbidity levels that prevented health officials from lifting the boil water advisory, but the events have sparked a conversation about the impact of logging on the environment.
A review by the CVCSCP found while it took 100 years to log 54 per cent of private forest lands in the Comox Lake watershed, between 1999 and 2009 16.2 per cent of this area was logged - a rate three times higher than before.
Domenico Iannidinardo, chief forester and VP sustainability for TimberWest said the company has full-time staff dedicated to monitoring the watershed and has water quality as a top priority.
"When it comes to forestry and drinking water, these are the two greatest renewable resources the Comox Valley has," he said. "TimberWest has continued to adapt its plans, integrate science and work with the community."
Island Timberlands LP and the Hancock Timber Resources Group are also present in the watershed, but don't log as much in the area.
Some environmentalists are concerned the increase in logging has weakened the ecosystem.
"With that extensive logging you've got a network of logging roads, ditching and culverts," Stapely said, adding that leads to erosion, which causes turbidity in lakes and rivers. "How much of that is from logging, how much of that is natural? We'd have to do a study."
Not everyone agrees, including some loggers who have spent a good chunk of their lives trudging up and down the hills above Comox Lake.
Ken Cottini was based out of the Comox Valley for 34 years, watching Crown Zellerbach turn into Fletcher Challenge and then into TimberWest.
Before the snippers and other machinery were brought in there would be up to 25 fallers at a time working above Comox Lake, he remembers.
In many ways forestry companies have tightened up their act, he says, but notes loggers have always had a commitment to keeping the watershed intact - although they wouldn't have phrased it that way decades ago.
"There was always cases of guys not wanting to fall into fish bearing creeks," he said. "There's only so much you can do if you're ordered to do it."
But things have improved significantly, he says. In the past loggers wouldn't think twice about cutting into swamps to open up a setting, for example.
And it wasn't until the 90s that water quality came to the fore.
Meanwhile TimberWest was going through its own changes.
The company had been absent from the Comox Lake watershed throughout the 1980s as second-growth forests were allowed to mature.
TimberWest returned to the area the following decade and began increasing the volume of logs it pulled out of the watershed.
Cottini recalls the TimberWest environmental committee he sat on bringing concerns from loggers about a jump in harvesting from about 300,000 cubic metres in the entire district (which includes Campbell River, Mount Washington and Comox Lake) past 400,000 cubic metres and beyond, in the mid 90s.
After Paul McElligott was appointed president and CEO in 2000, the company's approach to logging on Vancouver Island took a dramatic turn, with harvesting levels shooting up past a million cubic metres per year, he said.
Workers were concerned this rate just wasn't sustainable and would hurt both employment levels and the environment in the not too distant future.
"When they brought in the new management team from Quebec and the US it was 'Screw the labour,'" he said. "It became all about money."
TimberWest put an American expansion plan behind them and focused on "delivering value to its unitholders from its B.C. operations," according to a company press release from the era.
One key element opposed by the TimberWest environment committee was the method of determining sustainability on a company-wide basis instead of within a particular district of operations, Cottini explained.
"We questioned them every step of the way," he said, noting one of the practices that bothered loggers was instances of "robbing areas that are immature."
TimberWest officials say they only log up to three per cent of forest lands in any given area and are committed to looking at the integrity of the watershed as a whole.
"There are many people who get up every morning looking forward to managing this forest very carefully," Iannidinardo said. "Drinking water is the top planning priority for our operations in the watershed."
Collective bargaining in the 2000s brought in significant new changes to how forest lands are managed, Cottini reflected.
"What happened was they got to contract all their lands out," he said. "They can always download blame."
And while Cottini says he believes contractors are held to account by TimberWest in the Comox Valley watershed and doesn't think the company has violated any rules on purpose, he says no matter what way you look at it, things have shifted.
"We would hold them to certain standards," he said. "It's a whole different ballgame now."
Since then, TimberWest has been sold to a pair of pension funds, the BC Investment Management Corp. and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board.
But Cottini doesn't believe logging played a significant part in bringing on the boil water advisory.
While he conceded timber extraction certainly is one of the many factors affecting the watershed, it's the changes he's seen in recent years to the entire climate that have the bigger impact, he said.
"The weather's going to keep evolving, too," he said, suggesting what he feels the regional district should do to safeguard water quality. "That's why I believe in a filtration system. We might as well get ahead of it instead of lagging behind."
TimberWest officials say they leave buffer zones that range from 5-35 metres depending on the type of stream and soil on the bank.
The company also holds regular training sessions with planning and harvesting contractors.
Rod Bealing, executive director of the Private Forest Landowners Association, maintains the penalties for mismanaging the forest and watershed are so severe it keeps logging companies on the straight and narrow.
"There's a lot of long-term planning that goes into it," he said. "We all live in the same communities and drink the same water."
Lyle Quinn, a Merville resident who logged in the Comox Lake watershed last year for Fall River Ltd., said he didn't see anything out of the ordinary take place on the cut block this year that would have triggered significant turbidity.
The biggest difference was due to the warm weather they could log longer than usual.
"It was the worst bloody year for rain," he said. "We used to be shut down all winter. Now we log all winter."

Read more: http://www.comoxvalleyecho.com/news/local/comox-lake-watershed-logging-under-the-microscope-following-boil-water-advisory-1.1768225 


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