Hidden behind a wall of trees, the feller buncher — a type of harvester used in logging — cuts the bottoms off several pine trees, bundles them together and throws them on to a pile.
Its operator makes quick work, bringing down a stand of trees in minutes.
The skidder, another heavy logging vehicle, pulls the cut trees out of the downed forest.
“While the skidding is going on, all of the tops of the trees are falling off,” explains Tom Daniels, forestry superintendent with Sundre Forest Products, during a recent tour of their operations west of Rocky Mountain House. “Those cones will eventually open up and release seed so that’s part of when the regeneration happens.”
Then the processor grabs the trees, skins off the branches and cuts them down to a size that’s easier to transport to two nearby mills for plywood and pulp to make paper.
It’s a routine day behind the scenes at Sundre Forest Products, which has both logged and reforested cut blocks in the middle of in-tact forests along the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies in central Alberta.
The industry has come under fire in recent years, particularly after the June 2013 flood swept through southern Alberta when some suggested clear cuts, roads and trails contributed to the deluge.
It took another hit last fall after the NDP government banned logging in the Castle Wilderness Area.
Despite the ban in southwestern Alberta, other operations along the Eastern Slopes — along with one in the Ghost wilderness area near Cochrane — continue to be the target of criticism about clear cut logging and watershed health.
“There’s a lot of forests where you can get wood, but the forests along the Eastern Slopes are where we get all of our water,” said Kevin Van Tighem, a long-time conservationist who was the chairman of the Foothills Model Forest from 2002 to 2005.
“The priority in our thinking should always be around water security.”
Daniels, who took Postmedia on a tour earlier this winter to counter the ongoing criticism of the industry, suggested the impact of logging on water flow isn’t as extreme as often suggested.
“Logging has an impact on water flow, but at very low levels of water,” he said, using the example of a soaked sponge to explain how the ground was already saturated before all of the rain fell during the June 2013 floods.
Daniels added that there are sustainable ways to log Alberta’s forests.
“People talk about sedimentation,” he said. “If you are building your road properly, with proper ditching and proper drainage, you shouldn’t be getting any sedimentation.”
He said they try to use bridges instead of culverts to go over streams.
Furthermore, Daniels said, people often forget that the companies are required to replant all of the trees that are logged and reclaim all of the roads.
“A lot of people really focus on the forest that is getting cut,” he said. “They don’t really focus on the new forest that is being created.”
Van Tighem, who wrote a book called Heart Waters, acknowledged there are some good practices by the forestry companies, but suggested the Alberta government needs to change the ground rules around logging in the province’s headwaters.
“The issue is that they are doing the wrong kind of logging,” he suggested. “The issue is not with the companies not meeting standards.
“It’s the standards that the government sets are the wrong ones — they are still around wood production; they are not around watershed health.”
An emailed statement from the Minister of Forestry and Agriculture said they are working to find a balance.
“We all want to protect the headwaters that sustain our province and conserve our wilderness for future generations,” said Oneil Carlier, suggesting those principles underline all of the province’s work throughout the province.
“We have stringent regulations that follow international standards with regard to operating ground rules for forestry companies.”
Van Tighem, however, said he would like to see the province develop a new set of ground rules for watershed forests.
For example, he said they could move away from clear cuts — except for north-facing slopes that don’t get direct sun and wind.
Van Tighem said clear cutting leads to an enhanced snowpack, but it melts rapidly in the spring and then becomes dry because it’s exposed to the sun.
Despite raising his concerns with the province, he hasn’t had any indication that they’re taking another look at the way they regulate the industry.
“There’s an old boy’s club that runs forestry in the province of Alberta,” he said. “Every time we get a new minister, they get the same advice … so nothing changes.
“There is a certain level of arrogance that says we know best and, if you disagree with us, you’re a treehugger.”