By Korie Marshall
A plan to turn the Ancient Forest Trail into a park has received strong support, but the province has scheduled another input meeting in McBride, after hearing concerns the consultation period was too short.
A consultation paper was released in early October, outlining a proposed plan to offer more permanent protection for the Ancient Forest Trail and surrounding areas. Called Chun Toh Whud U Jud by the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, the area is home to ancient cedars, many over 2000 years old, rare lichens and other species. Volunteers and businesses including the McBride Community Forest Corporation have donated time, materials and effort over recent years to building a trail system including a universal boardwalk that highlights and protects the unique ecosystem.
The inland temperate rainforest created on the west side of the Rocky Mountain Trench is unique in the world, and some argue it is worthy of UNESCO World Heritage Site certification. That would first require it be provincially or federally protected, like in a provincial park, but the only protection right now is for areas that are currently designated Old Growth Management Areas under the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
The province announced meetings at the Lheidli T’enneh band office, the Dome Creek Community Hall, the Prince George Civic Centre, and the Robson Valley Community Centre in early October, and said it would be accepting email comments on the plan until Nov. 2nd.
The new meeting in McBride is scheduled for Nov. 19th, from 5-7 pm at the Robson Valley Community Centre, says Greig Bethel, spokesperson for the ministry. He says the government plans to make a final decision on the size, boundaries and designation of the forest by the end of 2016.
In July the province signed an agreement with the Lheidli T’enneh and the Caledonia Ramblers Hiking Society, a community-based conservation organization, to ensure the Ancient Forest is preserved and designated an official protected area in the long run.
The consultation paper says the province plans to set aside up to 12,000 hectares as a specially designated area designed to protect the Ancient Forest’s unique ecosystem. Key questions included how much of the area should be protected, what activities should be allowed, what is the public’s role in ensuring the long-term conservation of the Ancient Forest, and should the province continue to support efforts to have the area designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A concern raised on local social media was that the proposal means a loss of arable land for the region. Some northeast sections of the proposal (along the southeast side of the Fraser River) are currently in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). In late 2014 the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George provided a letter of support for expanding the boundaries of Slim Creek Provincial Park in order to protect the core ancient cedar stand ecosystems. Terry McEachen, General Manager of Development Services for the district, which has delegated authority from the Agricultural Land Commission says the proposal is within permitted uses for land in the ALR. Regulation 171/2002 lists biodiversity conservation, passive recreation, heritage, wildlife and scenery viewing purposes as permitted non-farm uses for ALR land.
The Northern Wetbelt Working Group has collected over 700 online signatures in support of the project. A spokesperson for the group said there were less people at the meeting in Prince George than expected, possibly because of the short notice for the meetings.