Land swaps could protect watersheds, official says

Logging on hillsides such as McLaughlin Ridge inevitably affects the water supply of surrounding communities and the province should do more to help protect watersheds, says the chairman of the AlberniClayoquot Regional District.

Glenn Wong is planning to ask Forests Minister Steve Thomson about the possibility of swapping Crown land for private managed forest lands at the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting in Victoria next week. If the proposal were accepted, forestry companies could cut in Crown land areas instead of in the watershed.

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"I know that what you do in the hills has an impact on water quality," he said. "We have two water improvement districts and the [Port Alberni] water supply, and we don't have much of a say in what is happening in our watersheds."

Smaller communities such as Port Alberni, which is surrounded by private managed forest land, cannot afford to buy their watersheds, so must look for other ways to increase protections, Wong said.

Port Alberni Mayor John Douglas said the emphasis is on talking to forestry companies.

"We have a pretty good dialogue going," he said.

But Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser, who obtained documents showing strong disagreements between the province and Island Timberlands over protection on McLaughlin Ridge, said logging done so far in the area shows little concern for environmental or watershed values.

Logging this year took place around the periphery of the ridge. The core has not yet been harvested.

"It's not just a matter of the deer or the water," Fraser said. "It's a unique biosystem."

Jane Morden, spokeswoman for the WatershedForest Alliance in Port Alberni, said the ridge has "scary steep slopes" and harvesting is likely to affect both the water supply and wildlife habitat - even if selective logging techniques are used.

"It was supposedly protected to begin with," she said. "If anything is going to be left, at least leave this."

China Creek, the main source of Port Alberni's water, already has sediment problems, but recent turbidity has cleared very quickly - a sign that the creek is rushing because of erosion higher up, Morden said.

McLaughlin Ridge is made up of old-growth coastal Douglas fir, with a good canopy, hanging lichens and small meadows, making it excellent wildlife habitat, Morden said.

Forests Ministry spokeswoman Vivian Thomas said ministry staff have met with Port Alberni officials about the water.

"There are pre-existing seasonal water turbidity issues in China Creek; however, to this point, no evidence suggests that logging activity in the area is the cause," she said. "This turbidity has existed for many years and is one reason why Port Alberni also draws water from Bainbridge Lake, particularly when turbidity levels are high in China Creek."

Minutes of meetings in the documents obtained by Fraser document concerns about public perception.

"Selling this to the public is a real concern for [Island Timberlands]," say the minutes.

Bill Waugh, Island Timberlands' forestry manager, warned ministry staff that the only way to protect the area in perpetuity would be for the province to buy it.

However, Thomas said the ministry has no interest in buying the ridge.

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