A registered undertaking with the Department of Environment and Conservation to construct an 11-kilometre access road to explore for minerals in the heart of the Avalon forest adjacent to Salmonier has raised a lot of public concern because of its effects on caribou habitat, salmon river headwaters and remote cottage country.
Perhaps it is convenient that a private exploration company is willing to assume costs to construct a resource road into an intact landscape because the subsequent ownership will be assumed by the government. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) always has other agendas, and these likely include clear-cutting of forests under the auspices of “salvage” and “silviculture.” As they say in Newfoundland, “Once the road goes in there, then that is the end of it.”
How many roads are enough?
In Newfoundland, DNR maintains over 8,000 kilometres of resources access roads, mostly put in place to provide access for forestry operations. Back in 1984, communities in Salmonier opposed the construction of a forest access road into Kirk’s Ridge. Sawmillers preferred to access the area by traditional skidder trails but were refused. Government officials continue to tout that the resource cannot be managed without a road down the middle of it. Locals see it very differently.
In Newfoundland, once resource roads are constructed, litanies of illegal activities follow, especially the construction of cabins because people know that once they’re constructed, the government will eventually provide permits to occupy.
The legislation to prevent this lacks clout, and there is a lackadaisical approach to illegal occupancy of Crown land. Conventional “cottage developments” by Crown Lands division have turned into costly real estate cul-de-sacs rather than much else. Once illegal cabins proliferate, a lobby of owners forms to secure their investments.
Resource access roads become access points for recreational uses and provide off-road entry points into landscape that was formerly remote, notably remote sections of salmon rivers. Besides piles of garbage and abandoned vehicles, these are entry points for invasive plants, such as coltsfoot, that is now blanketing native vegetation and spreading fast.
In 2004, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) of Canada developed the National Boreal Standard, the international environmental certification of the forest industry. It recognized that the creation of access, notably by resource roads, has detrimental effects on wildlife, plants and the forest ecosystem in general. Proponents applying for FSC certification must compile a formal access management plan.
The FSC elaborates: “This indicator is intended to address the role that access and linear disturbances play in fragmenting forests. Through mechanisms such as providing transportation corridors for predators and exotic species, and creating impediments to migration and local movements (of plants and animals), the effect of linear disturbances can far exceed their proportional presence in the forest.”
Many groups gave input into hearings in 2011-2012 concerning the development of the (seriously overdue) NL 2013 Sustainable Forest Management Strategy.
Among concerns were the control of and unabashed need for road access because managers often fail to understand the ecological and social implications of networking remote landscapes with roads. It would be helpful for the DNR itself to seek FSC certification as this would obligate them to take access management seriously. In Newfoundland, there is no land-use planning, and resource access roads show up in ad hoc fashion, treated in isolation to cumulative effects, and lack policy direction.
Recent scientific studies in Newfoundland show that caribou selectively use old conifer stands lacking an industrial history, and that these stands are different than mature forest regenerated from logging.
The long-term viability of caribou, and rare tree lichens, are dependent on intact old-growth boreal forests, which means they lack an industrial footprint.
It is not that caribou will not use clear-cuts or roads but rather that the rates of depredation on them escalates as result of predators, like coyotes following the linear features gridded through the landscape. In land-use planning, science-based decisions can be reached ensuring critical habitat is maintained, and industrial development optimized or concentrated in areas already altered from the primeval state.
Primeval forests and intact landscapes have largely disappeared from vast areas of Eastern Canada under the sway of industrial development, and Environment Canada has concluded that this is the most plausible explanation for the disappearance of woodland caribou from much of its historical range.
Here in Newfoundland, we are still blessed with significant remaining tracts that sustain woodland caribou and rare tree lichens that are indicator species of unique biological diversity.
We need a clear land use policy on resource access roads if we are to end the plague of ad hoc resource development.
So, let’s keep the horse in front of the cart.
Ian Goudie, PhD is an environmental scientist living in Salmonier, St. Mary’s Bay