Road Construction Through Goat River Watershed

by Taylor Bachrach

Up until November, the road into the upper Goat River watershed crossed a bridge over the Milk River and ended abruptly in a pile of dirt pushed up against the edge of the forest. Beyond the pile lay 35,000 hectares of untouched wilderness — one of the largest uncut, unprotected watersheds in the Fraser Headwaters region of northeastern British Columbia.

Today, it is a different place. In late November, McBride Forest Industries (MFI) began pushing a road into the heart of the upper Goat. The first cutblock has already been logged and as you read this, the trucks are likely rolling to the mill.

I first saw the upper Goat in 1998 as a summer employee with the Fraser Headwaters Alliance (FHA). Four of us were working to re-establish the Historic Goat River Trail, a gold-rush route first cleared in 1886 to move supplies between Barkerville and the upper Fraser River. Camped in the back end of the Goat for a week at a time, we spent the days tromping through the bush looking for historic blazes, cabins, and other evidence of the long-neglected trail.

When the helicopter flew us out at the end of the week and I gazed down on the river winding through the expansive forest below, I realized that the upper Goat is an incredibly special place.

There are many reasons why the upper Goat should be protected. The watershed provides critical connectivity between existing protected areas and is an important building block in linking the contiguous parks of the Cariboo Mountains with those of the Rockies to the east. Its high-elevation spruce and subalpine fir forests are prime habitat for endangered mountain caribou, a species that has been red-listed by the provincial government and whose population has dwindled to less than 2,300 individuals. The Goat River itself runs crystal clear year-round, creating spawning and rearing grounds for resident Bull trout and an escapement of Chinook salmon that thrash their way 1,200 kilometres up the Fraser from the Pacific. And, in addition to its ecological values, the Historic Goat River Trail has the potential to join the ranks of the West Coast Trail as a premier ecotourism destination.

No matter how compelling the value of leaving the upper Goat intact, the industrial juggernaut is paying no heed. With the economy of the Robson Valley leaning hard on a declining timber supply, the upper Goat represents one of the last big chunks of old growth timber in the Forest District. But by itself, the 445,000m3 (approximately 13,000 truckloads) of timber up for grabs in the upper Goat is only enough to keep MFI's McBride veneer mill in operation for two short years.

MFI is so desperate to get at the forests of the upper Goat that they are contravening both the federal Fisheries Act and the Forest Practices Code to do so. The latter requires logging operations to protect habitat by observing a 50-metre 'riparian reserve' along fish-bearing streams such as the Goat. Not only will the proposed road violate the reserve zone, MFI plans to build the road in the channel of the Goat River itself, something the company claims is necessary due to the terrain of the steep, narrow valley.

"There's an awful lot of resource value in the back end of the Goat River," said Mike Jackman, MFI's head planner, in a recent CBC radio interview, "and the least environmental impact to get there is by constructing the road into a section of the river."

Although building a road in a salmon river may seem unthinkable in this age of declining salmon stocks, the company is using a loophole in the legislation that allows government officials to circumvent the law at their discretion. To compensate for the resulting impacts, MFI says they will 'create' new fish habitat further downstream by using machinery to open an unused side channel.

Since the beginning of the Land and Resource Management Planning (LRMP) process in 1995, the Fraser Headwaters Alliance has been trying to gain protection for the upper Goat. Working out of a small office in Dunster, the grassroots organization has re-established and promoted the Historic Goat River Trail, published numerous articles on the plight of the watershed, and received coverage for the issue in provincial and national media.

"By logging the upper Goat, we're spending our children's inheritance," says FHA Coordinator, Roy Howard, "and in my mind, that's a great mistake."

Recently, with help from the Sierra Legal Defense Fund, the Alliance lodged a formal complaint with the BC Forest Practices Board regarding the impact of proposed developments on the Historic Trail and fish habitat. The Board's report, released in early December, criticized the actions of the District Manager in approving the development, but stopped short of condemning the development altogether.

The battle is far from over. In response to recent news that McBride Forest Industries is moving ahead with logging plans, the Fraser Headwaters Alliance has stepped up their campaign to protect the upper Goat. Volunteers have been out hanging banners along Highway 16 and the organization has launched a new website, www.savethegoat.ca to keep people up-to-date on the campaign. Visitors to the site can find recent press releases, photos, and ways that they can add their voice to those calling for a stop to logging in the upper Goat. The Alliance is currently exploring other options including legal action.

As for myself, I will be back next summer to hike the Goat River Trail through to Bowron Lake. I hope that someday my children might have a chance to do the same.

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[From WS February/March 2002]

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