By: Korie Marshall

A wicked wind blew a number of trees down in the Robson Valley the week before, but last week, trees on a large private lot in the middle of Valemount really started coming down. It has sparked a lot of local discussion about the value of what some consider a community asset, the nature of change, and the need (or not) for community input.

Logging began last Wednesday on the 65-acre property at 202 Ash Street, bordering the back of properties on 9th Avenue and the 13th Avenue alley, and stretching three full blocks all the way to Dogwood Street. It started in a small section across Dogwood Street, between John Osadchuck Park and Hartman’s Trailer Park, and then moved into the larger section which has been used for years by residents walking dogs and collecting pine mushrooms. Locals have also used the area for collecting firewood, often cutting down the beetle-killed pine trees and making trails for off-road vehicles, and occasionally dumping garbage of various sorts.

The noise of machinery and the zip of the cutting blade could be heard across the village. New “private property” signs and flags marking Village infrastructure were posted as well as signs warning of active logging. Contractor David Craig of Spaz Logging says he was on site to ensure the public stayed well away from the machinery. The buncher-feller machine grabs trees and cuts them in a second, and then stacks them in piles, making quick work of most of the merchantable timber. The machine warns all to stay 500 feet away.

The mix of dead wood and live trees is a big fire hazard, Craig says, but they are planning to leave stands of younger, smaller, less merchantable trees for wind-break and visual values. And some residents are already noticing their great new view, even if they weren’t happy at first about the forest in their back yard coming down.

“Initially I was unhappy about the trees going down but now, looking at the amazing view we now have, I love it,” says 9th Avenue resident Paul Johnson. Many spots from 9th Avenue now have a clear view of Canoe Mountain to the south. Johnson says it’s also good to have the fire danger gone because of the large number of beetle-killed trees there. “I always worried about it going up in flames and taking half of Valemount with it.”

Others have also expressed concerns about the fire risk from the property, even though it was assessed last spring for dangers to neighbouring property and public infrastructure. Valemount Council authorized the assessment which noted beetle kill hazards to the community, and gave the property owner until May 30th 2014 to address the concerns. The trees marked as concerns were removed last year, amid local discussion about the risk of dust storms and the loss of the park-like area if the lot were to be clear-cut.

It seems that not all the risk was removed though, as one tree fell on three cars in a neighbouring parking lot in that sudden windstorm just before logging started.

But risk or not, the initial reaction of many residents was shock and a feeling of loss at seeing the forest in the middle of town go down.

“I have to say it really hurts to see what’s being done there,” said resident and local TV station manager Gord Peters on social media discussion boards. “This was a beautiful forest used and enjoyed by the community (and likely wildlife) for many years.”

Peters says he is not against development, but recognizes that the property directly impacts the value of neighbouring properties. Some residents on 9th and 14th Avenues say they chose their property because of the trees and privacy next door. Peters wants to know why there was no public consultation or notification.

“I realize this is private property,” he says, but given the size, its impact on the community and adjacent property owners, “there should be at the very least a moral obligation on behalf of the property owner and/or the Village of Valemount to let people know why part of the natural habitat within the village is being destroyed.”

Peters and others also want to know if any of the trees are being kept for future development of public greenspace, a requirement of many developments and property subdivisions.

But the new property owners aren’t saying much.

The 65-acre property was bought by a numbered Alberta company on March 31st this year for $330,000. It was assessed this year for tax purposes at $345,000, down substantially from the $571,000 assessment the year before, and the $1 million purchase price in May of 2007.

The Goat contacted Derrick Colling, one of the two directors of the numbered company, but aside from confirming Shirley Sander is his manager for the property and is handling most things in Valemount, declined to comment further. The company is based in Sherwood Park and a person named Constance Colling has 100 per cent of voting shares.

Derrick Colling is also a director for Luxor Minerals Inc. based in Lethbridge.

We left messages with Sander asking for comment, but her only response last week was to say she wouldn’t be answering any of our questions.

Residents continue to wonder what is planned for the property. Shirley Sander is known for her proposed Saas Fee condo and business development on 5th Avenue. The price of pine logs right now is about $90-95 per tonne, a slight increase since last winter and 2013 price of $88 per tonne.