The provincial government has green-lit a logging project it hopes can strike a balance between appeasing the needs of industry and respecting the territorial rights of the Waswanipi Cree.

Last week, the Liberal government authorized the construction of two logging roads that cut deep into Cree territory but imposed a number of environmental safeguards on them. The Waswanipi band council says it’s satisfied with the outcome and willing to work alongside sawmill operator Matériaux Blanchet to mitigate the environmental harm caused by their roads.

But will these measures be enough to help ensure the survival of Quebec’s rapidly declining woodland caribou herds, whose habitat would be transformed by the project?

“If you want to gauge the health of the boreal forest, look at how the caribou are doing,” said Pier-Olivier Boudreault, a project director with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), a charitable organization. “In a sense, woodland caribou are the canary in the coal mine. Right now they’re not doing great.

“On one hand, we see that the government has heard the people of Waswanipi and they’ve backed off on some aspects of the project,” he continued. “On the other, there’s the question of the caribou, which is disconcerting. They’re authorizing part of the project while, for the caribou, there’s no real strategy to preserve them. They’re putting the cart before the horse.”

There are between 6,500 and 8,000 woodland caribou remaining in Quebec, and their numbers have dropped by at least 30 per cent since the 1990s, according to CPAWS. Their Quebec habitat is about 1,200 kilometres north of Montreal, near the Broadback River — an area that’s largely untouched by human activity.

A previous plan for Matériaux Blanchet to build 126 kilometres of logging roads would have encroached on the habitat but, under government-imposed restrictions, the scale of the company’s project has been cut by 43 per cent.

The caribou, Boudreault says, are sensitive to the presence of roads because they attract black bears and other animals that prey on calves.

“Logging allows for the growth of berries, which attracts black bears,” he said. “They also attract moose, who, in turn, attract wolves.”

The roads are meant to link Matériaux Blanchet’s Amos sawmill to logging camps deep in the forest, and the company’s original proposal would have interfered with three Cree traplines. The traplines are a vital part of the Waswanipi Cree’s economy and have been central to their way of life for centuries. Under the new plan, the traplines would remain untouched.

There would also be a monitoring committee where Cree trappers — many of whom live off the land for months at a time — work alongside employees of Matériaux Blanchet.

“It gives us, the trappers and tallymen, the chance to have more of a say,” said Marcel Happyjack, chief of the Waswanipi Cree. “We didn’t want the roads to cross into the Broadback forest, and now we have reassurances that they won’t. That’s crucial.”

The logging company — which employs about 500 people in two Quebec sawmills — would also have to consult with Cree elders before submitting an impact study by the end of this summer.

Representatives from Matériaux Blanchet were unavailable for comment, but in past interviews suggested there can be a balance between their needs and the rights of the Cree.

Though Boudreault remains skeptical, he says there are mitigation measures that could help protect the fragile caribou population.

“If roads can be closed after the cutting season, that’s a start,” he said. “Right now we need to move beyond words and see what concrete actions can be taken. Because, as it stands, the roads haven’t been built yet and the caribou herds are in decline.”

Happyjack says the next step is to present the authorized project to members of his community — most of whom are still working their traplines harvesting meat from the goose hunt.

“We’ll see how well received it is and move on from there,” said Happyjack. “We’re not anti-business — we want to share the land with our non-aboriginal neighbours and do what’s best for everyone.”