Draft agreements reached in March on protecting vulnerable caribou herds are good news for British Columbians concerned about wildlife conservation, but others worry about the implications for forestry and snowmobiling in the Burns Lake and Houston areas.
One agreement, announced on March 21 was between the provincial and federal governments and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations, and focuses on caribou herds in the northeast near Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge, and Mackenzie.
The other is between the federal and B.C. governments and covers a wider swathe of territory including the Southern Mountain caribou herd that stretches south to the Washington border.
The provincial government has acknowledged fears that curtailing development to protect caribou habitat might affect natural resource economies.
Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development (FLNRORD) said on March 21, “We recognize that measures to recover caribou will have some impacts on economic activities in and around caribou habitat. This government knows and acknowledges resource jobs are important to First Nations and non-First Nations communities.”
“In our perspective the federal government must provide adequate financial compensation to mitigate the economic impacts and we’re working with them to confirm those details before a final agreement is signed.”
The government hasn’t provided details on what those economic effects could be. It has only stated that more consultation with the public would follow, as FLNRORD spokeswoman Vivian Thomas told Lakes District News, “As herd plans are developed, the B.C. government will engage with industry, stakeholders and the public to understand any potential economic and community impacts before approving.”
Steve Zika, chief executive officer of Hampton Lumber, which owns Babine Forest Products, offered a clearer assessment of what the caribou habitat protections could entail.
“Undoubtedly any new land set aside for caribou will lower the provincial AAC [Annual Allowable Cut],” he said.
“The initial plan if approved will have more immediate effects outside of the Lakes TSA [Timber Supply Area]. However, any restrictions on neighboring TSA’s could have some crossover effect on timber supply in the Lakes District.”
The FLNRORD Minister also recognized the worries that snowmobiling areas would be affected by the caribou habitat protection measures, and added that the agreements don’t limit the activity yet.
“As far as snowmobiling goes there are no restrictions in the draft agreements as they stand now. We want to go out and gather local knowledge and input from locals…and on the areas they use and come to agreements with them…I guess you could say there’ll be a specific effort on snowmobile access and snowmobile use.”
Though there are no caribou herds in the Burns Lake region, many snowmobilers from the area venture to Houston, where snowmobile routes go near the Telkwa Range and where caribou are present.
The Houston Snowmobile Club and the province signed a stewardship management agreement on Nov. 9, 2017 to protect caribou habitat. The agreement saw some areas closed off to snowmobiling.
Dylan De La Mare, President of the Houston Snowmobiling Club said that his organization has a good working relationship with the provincial government and that the club has been able to keep its core riding areas open.
“But I can foresee that changing in the future if things keep going the way they’re going…There should be a lot more direct consultation with locals from Houston and the immediate area than just with the public. Unless you’re a [snowmobile] user you wouldn’t understand,” he said.
“There’s an outcry for protecting caribou. Instead of closing an area to protect caribou they should be doing more consultation or making a science-based decision on closure, not just closing it based on public outcry.”
De La Mare fears what might come with creeping limitations on riding areas.
“It’ll kill the whole snowmobiling industry in northwestern B.C. Right now people come from all over the place to Houston to ride the Telkwa Range. It’s a fantastic area. They support Houston businesses when they come here. It was named the best western Canadian sled town in . It’ll be gone if the restrictions continue.”
While speaking at the Burns Lake & District Chamber of Commerce lunch event in Burns Lake on March 21, Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad pointed to what he regards as the surprising trajectory of the agreements.
“There’s a movement, a group of tier-one or core environmental groups that have been lobbying for what’s called the Y2Y – Yukon to Yellowstone. They want a park from the Yukon to Yellowstone down through the Rockies,” explained Rustad, who added that the envisioned park would be closed off to varying degrees of recreation and natural resource development.
“George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change was the head of the Sierra Club when they were pushing for [Y2Y],” he said.
Referring to the Draft Section 11 and Draft Partnership Agreement map for protecting caribou, Rustad said those areas “just happen to align with what the Y2Y was originally designed to do – right from the Kootenays all the way up into the Peace.”
“They’re calling it a draft agreement but once you’ve signed with First Nations it’s a lot more than a draft. They have refused to engage with any groups outside of the First Nations because of confidentiality issues with the First Nations.”
Since April 1 the province has been conducting public information sessions from Chetwynd south to Prince George to gather input on the draft agreements. The final meetings take place on April 10 in Mackenzie and on April 11 in Quesnel. None were held west of Prince George.
After the public consultation period finishes the draft will go to the federal and provincial cabinets for approval in June.