Old-Growth Threatened by Site C as Ecologically Important as Great Bear Rainforest, Former B.C. Biologist Says

The Peace Valley old-growth forest slated to be clear cut for the Site C dam is just as important, if not more ecologically significant, than the Great Bear Rainforest, says the wildlife biologist and retired provincial government manager who wrote B.C.’s management plan for the area.
 
“It’s more important from a biodiversity point of view because there’s far less of it,” Rod Backmeyer said in a phone interview.
 
“The boreal forest hasn’t had the high profile [of the Great Bear Rainforest]. You don’t get those classic giant trees with moss covered ground and logs under them that are so picturesque. It’s different here. It doesn’t mean that it has less value. It just doesn’t have that romantic flavour that some of the coastal old-growth has.”
 
The forest, on the south bank of the Peace River near its confluence with the Moberly River, surrounds an historic fort site where Peace Valley farmers and First Nations members have camped since New Year’s Eve. BC Hydro contractors built a logging bridge across the mouth of the Moberly during the Christmas holidays, but clear-cutting stopped when campers and their supporters, including First Nations elders, began to maintain a constant vigil near logging equipment.

The forest around the Rocky Mountain Fort site is so ecologically important that the B.C. government gave it three different protective designations. It is a designated Old-Growth Management Area, with centuries-old poplar, spruce and cottonwood trees that offer prime habitat for at-risk species like the fisher, which moves its young from nest to nest in tree cavities.
 
The area is also considered to be critical habitat for moose, and carries an official designation as Ungulate Winter Habitat. It provides increasingly rare winter habitat for the moose population, which is in such sharp decline in the Peace and elsewhere in B.C. that the provincial government has commissioned a five-year study to probe reasons for the die-off.
 
“You’re going to lose a lot of the critical winter range,” Backmeyer said of the planned logging. “We’re going to lose all of that lower slope and the big timber in the valley that’s the thermal cover and the security cover during those big storm events. It’s going to be gone.”
 
In addition to the old-growth and ungulate winter range designations, the area targeted for immediate clear cutting was set aside by the provincial government in 1969 as part of the South Peace Land Reserve that aims to protect unique wildlife values, including habitat for the elusive and at-risk wolverine.
 
The reserve contains some of the “highest wildlife values in the entire Peace,” according to the management plan that Backmeyer wrote in 1992 while working as a consultant. He was subsequently hired by the B.C. Ministry of the Environment as a wildlife biologist and later managed major projects for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
 
Even though the area around the Rocky Mountain Fort site is not slated to be flooded until 2024, B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett has said clear cutting must take place by this March 31, before songbirds return to nest.
 
Canada is a signatory to the Migratory Birds Convention Act, which prevents migratory birds from being killed or their nests from being destroyed.
 
Myke Chutter, a bird specialist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said mortality is significantly reduced if logging takes place before “the empty forest comes alive” with birds building nests and hatching their young. He said it is also illegal under the B.C. Wildlife Act to log trees with active songbird nests.
 
The land reserve provides important nesting habitat for four at-risk songbird species found nowhere in B.C. but in the Peace River Valley, according to the South Peace Land Reserve management plan.
 
These are the Black-throated Green Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Mourning Warbler and Canada Warbler. (Since the management plan was written, the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia has confirmed sightings of two of these species, the Canada Warbler and Mourning Warbler, in a small zone to the north of the Peace Valley.)
 
B.C.’s Conservation Data Centre, which maps known locations of at-risk species and ecological communities, lists the Canada Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler as occurring around the Rocky Mountain Fort site.


Canada Warbler. Photo: Garth McElroy/Vireo from the Audobon Society.
 
The Canada Warbler, a small yellow and grey songbird with a white ring around its eye, is one of five migratory bird species whose sustainability could be threatened by Site C, according to a BC Hydro submission to the Joint Review Panel that examined Site C for the federal and provincial governments.  
 
That review panel concluded that the Site C dam and its huge reservoir would likely cause “significant adverse effects to migratory birds relying on valley bottom habitat during their life cycle and these losses would be permanent and cannot be mitigated.”
 
Environment Canada, in its submission to the Joint Review Panel, said it agreed with BC Hydro that the dam and its reservoir would pose “significant residual adverse effects” to at-risk migratory bird species.
 
The federal department went on to say that these adverse effects are potentially of greater magnitude than BC Hydro concluded, that a broader suite of migratory birds will potentially be affected by Site C than BC Hydro reported, and that the loss of nesting habitat to migratory birds and species at risk “has not been fully assessed.”
 
The land reserve, including the area around the Rocky Mountain Fort site, has such high environmental values that the majority of it was slated to become a provincial protected area.
 
The 7,000-hectare Peace Boudreau Protected Area was set aside in the 1980s but was never formally been designated by the B.C. Cabinet.
 
In 2015, the B.C. government assured the Saulteau First Nation it would protect Peace Boudreau as part of a Site C impact benefits agreement that was reached but not signed.
 
Up to one-third of the proposed protected area would be destroyed by the Site C reservoir, including the forest and river flats around the Rocky Mountain Fort site.
 
Backmeyer said the Peace is unusual because it is a low elevation valley that supports starkly different ecosystems and wildlife.
 
“It’s so unique in that you get almost semi-desert on one side of the valley and you get old growth spruce right across the river. You don’t find that anywhere else in B.C., that’s for sure.”

Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife