With Spray Lake Sawmill’s logging operations in the Ghost Valley coming to a close, residents invited Stephen Legault, from Yellowstone to Yukon, to speak to Ghost residents about the future of the land they fought hard to save from being clearcut.

“We’ve all seen the ways in which clearcutting has affected our valley,” Sharon MacDonald told close to 90 people who came to hear Legault speak Thursday, with some families losing their tourist driven ventures, concerns that wild fires could become more common and everyone worried about how this will affect the watershed.

“As our landscape begins the long process of recovery, we wonder if we are closer to forming policies that honour the land,” said MacDonald, stressing that now that the harvest is done residents need to make sure their land is restored to its former beauty and the importance of trees to water security is understood so that clearcutting is barred from these important areas in the future.

As this subject falls under the scope of Y2Y, a not-for-profit organization that works with 300 partners across four states, two provinces and the territories to secure the long-term ecological health of the region, Legault spoke to the importance of the region and what can be done to protect it.

“The only way we can move forward in this world is to work together,” Legault told his audience, stressing that while Y2Y and communities like that of the Ghost Valley are driven by passion they are also strong advocates of science.

“About 10 per cent of Alberta provides 90 per cent of the water,” said Legault, referring to water supply models completed by the University of Alberta in January, with that area being confined to the Rockies and Foothills where only three per cent of the water comes from glaciers and the rest is runoff.

“These forests that make up that landscape are what holds the water for our use,” Legault said.

Despite the important role these forests play in providing water for Calgary and communities throughout the South Saskatchewan River Basin, which stretches into Manitoba, only 2.5 per cent of the Foothills are protected by the province. While the NDP aim to increase this to 17 per cent by 2020 that is still too low in the long run for Y2Y.

“Regardless of how we use our water, we all have a vested interest in the future of this resource,” said Legault, noting that, according to a 2012 report by Global Forest Watch Canada, while Alberta gained about 2,350 kilometres square of forest in 12 years over that same period 5,025 kilometres squared was lost.

What’s more, no cost benefit analysis has ever been done on clearcutting in Alberta’s headwaters, so no one knows what effect it has on not only water security but wildlife, opportunity costs in terms of recreation and tourism and how much more municipalities have to spend to filter water for consumption.

“As one industry is able to make money cutting a public resource, what is the cost to us?” asked Legault, noting that since loggers have no interest in doing such a study, Y2Y is working on getting a comprehensive report completed by a third party so the full effects of clearcutting can be understood.

In recent years, Legault has seen employment grow at three times the rate than areas far away from the natural environment as employers have found they have a higher employee retention rate when they are located near environments people can get out to and enjoy with friends and family in their off hours.

“People like us who love being outside will make sacrifices to live here,” said Legault, pointing to how people in the Cochrane area are willing to commute into Calgary if it means being close to the mountains and provincial parks. “By creating protected areas we can attract businesses, attract jobs and attract growth.”

To demonstrate this, Legault pointed to Montana, where the logging company Pyramid had an adversarial relationship with residents as they kept clearcutting whatever forests they could in the Seeley Lake and Swan River Valley while residents did what they could to protect the land. Eventually, Pyramid found itself to be running out of wood and would eventually face the prospect of shutting down.

Despite the frustrations residents had with the company, no one wanted to see Pyramid shut its doors so the two parties worked with the federal government on another option, which is referred to as the Southwestern Crown Collaborative. The result was cutting the number of shifts from three to one with those on the two left out shifts being retrained in things like reforestation and trail building to create a restoration economy.

“Over seven years the amount of money coming out of the community is greater than the federal money going in,” said Legault, noting that since this new approach was implemented in 2010 tourism is booming, the cost of water filtration is down and wildlife is returning.

The program was so successful it has since been repeated in nine other states and Legault sees no reason this cannot be done in Alberta.

“We can put people back to work doing meaningful work in the woods,” said Legault, though in order for this to work government, residents and industry all need to agree to help put back together what they have allowed to be destroyed over the last century.

To do this, Y2Y and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society have made recommendations that, among other things, the government implement new forestry ground rules for headwater forests that focus on restoring and sustaining watershed health rather than producing a maximum timber yields, replace commercial logging south of the Ghost River with restoration work and the development of economic opportunities like ecotourism, end new road building for industrial development in headwaters as every new group builds another one instead or sharing an existing road, create new protected areas in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge’s headwaters to safeguard water quality and quantity, stop new mining for minerals, coal and gravel near headwaters and within key watersheds and repair and revegetate areas damaged by ATVs and provide vehicle trails for them outside of parks and important conservation areas.

“This is not a partisan issue, it’s one everyone should be able to get behind,” said Legault, who worries that without a change in business practices Spray Lake Sawmills will not last another decade. “I’m getting emails from people every day in Calgary and High River about the logging to be done in southern Kananaskis. The level of conflict will only increase as timber resources become increasingly important for watershed protection.”

“The response from Alberta has been standoffish. The company shows no interest in changing its model and the province is unconvinced they need to change how they log,” said Legault, who has brought up the matter with the two parties off and on over the last few years in order to implement logging practices similar to Pyramid.

“We did look into it and found it is an apple to orange comparison, with different land ownership, different tree species, different set of circumstances,” said Ed Kulcsar, SLS vice president of woodlands, noting that 78 per cent of the timber harvest in Montana was from private land whereas most of Alberta’s forests are Crown owned.

“SLS is on the leading edge of forest management in Alberta and meets or exceeds the rigorous forest management standards set by the Government of Alberta,” said Kulcsar, pointing to their Sustainable Forestry Initiative certification and their own reforestation work.

“In terms of restoration, SLS already fully reclaims its roads three to four years after harvest and reforests all its harvest areas, including the planting of 2.5 to 3 million seedlings annually.”