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Troubled Bridge OverWater

Alberta’s Sunpine Forest Products is caught in the cross-fire as environmentalists target a bridge the company built for court action.
By Tony Kryzanowski

Alberta forest company Sunpine Forest Products is turning out to be a pawn in an expensive legal chess match pitting well-funded environmentalists against industry in the battle over the management of natural resources in Canada. The issue of the Ram River crossing in Alberta is likely headed for a Supreme Court ruling that could have dire financial consequences both for Canada’s resource sector and Canadians in general. It could mean that anyone wanting to build a crossing over a body of water— man-made or otherwise—capable of floating a canoe will be required to conduct a full cumulative impact assessment on the environment for each project before receiving a navigable waters permit. Sunpine alone has over 100 water crossings each year. “If we have to go through cumulative impact assessments for 100 crossings each year, forget it,” says Sunpine community affairs forester Tom Daniels. “We’ll shut the doors. And we’re not the only ones in that situation.”

Daniels says that if a farmer wants to build a crossing over a man-made dugout, he could be faced with the same requirement. In addition to forest companies, oil and gas companies and the mining industry have similar concerns about how the requirement will impact their operations. Unfortunately for industry, the federal government, whose weak navigable waters legislation opened the door to this legal challenge in the first place, is a reluctant advocate because of its hidden agenda. That agenda is aimed squarely at wresting more power away from provincial governments over the management of natural resources, a provincial responsibility under the Canadian Constitution. The battle began in August 1996 when Sunpine Forest Products received a navigable waters permit to build a zero span bridge across the Ram River, west of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta.

Until recently, Sunpine was a low-key, privately-held company manufacturing dimension lumber and pressure treated wood products, and operating the world’s only continuous-flow,  laminated veneer lumber plant. Headquartered in Sundre, it also has operations in Rocky Mountain House. Earlier this year, Weldwood of Canada purchased the company. The Ram River bridge itself has no structures in the water and therefore offers no obstruction to navigation—even to a canoe. It is part of a road that also crosses Prairie Creek, leading to a portion of Sunpine’s Forest Management Area (FMA). The company applied for a permit to build a bridge across the Ram River because according to bureaucratic interpretation of the federal Navigable Waters Act, the term “navigable” also includes being navigable by a canoe. The Prairie Creek is so small that a person can cross it on foot at any time of year.

The Ram River itself is barely deep enough for a canoe. The approval of a navigable waters permit was the opening that environmentalists were looking for. It provided them with an opportunity to attack Sunpine’s logging activity in general by specifically challenging the permit process. A week after the permit was granted, an environmental group calling itself the Friends of the West Country, and backed by the Sierra Club legal defense fund, challenged its validity in court. In its challenge, the group claimed that the federal government had failed to follow the process that is required under the auspices of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). The Agency issued new environmental protection guidelines in January 1995.

The judge hearing the case reluctantly sided with the environmental group, stating that the bridge application should have also looked at the cumulative effects of the road on the environment, as well as the logging activity that the road was built for. His wording also suggested that the federal government should have looked at the impact of other road users, those being the oil and gas industry, trappers, as well as people using it to access recreational areas. The court decision played entirely into the hands of the environmentalists. Their obvious intent is to create enough regulatory red tape to discourage industry from building certain roads and bridges. The judge commented how the federal government had presented its case weakly, stating that government lawyers had not introduced information that would have been pertinent to the case and that might have lead to a different outcome.

Even though he was uncomfortable with the decision, the judge felt that the federal government had done a poor job arguing the case. “Lots of people are suggesting that that was the strategy of the federal government because they felt it was a good ruling that would help, for example, the CEAA to build up a bigger department and so on,” says Daniels. “The bureaucrats had a lot of influence on the decision that was made in court because it actually adds to their legitimacy.” In fact, there were plenty of rumors to suggest that the federal government was not going to appeal the judge’s ruling. “We just couldn’t understand why the federal government was not going to appeal this ruling,” says Daniels, “since we thought it was absolutely ridiculous.” He adds that many people felt the federal government was also happy with the ruling because it gave them a lot more jurisdictional power over provincial resources.

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Alberta’s Sunpine Forest Products is caught in the cross-fire as environmentalists target a bridge the company built for court action.

Only after intensive lobbying from indus-try across Canada did they decide to appeal at the eleventh hour. Prior to launching the appeal, they requested a stay on the previous court ruling, meaning that the federal government would not have to do anything to meet the requirements of that ruling until the case was played out in court. They lost that application as well, and a reassessment on the project has been launched, even as the first case is slated to be heard on appeal this fall. According to CEAA guidelines, the reassessment will look at the cumulative effect of the road and bridge, and may even investigate the logging activity itself. A number of groups have been granted intervener status at the appeal. Among them are the government of Alberta, the Canadian Environmental Law Association, the Canadian Environmental Defense Fund, the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, the Municipality of Clearwater (where the Ram River is located) as well as Sunpine Forest Products.

Denied intervener status were the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Mining Association of Canada, as well as the attorneys general of BC and Saskatchewan. “This ruling will have a huge impact,” says Daniels. “You can see by the number of interveners that have been lining up that it is not just the forest industry.” Sunpine wonders why they are faced with the cost of extra studies required by the reassessment and what will hap-pen if the federal government wins on appeal or if the reassessment will then be necessary. “No one wants to stretch their neck out that far because it gets involved in the political process,” says Daniels, “and some politician may say, ‘well no, we are too far into this, we have to continue on’.” Indications are that this case will drag on in court for some time to come. It appears the environmentalists’ strategy is to accept defeat on appeal, only to achieve their ultimate objective, which is an opportunity to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Meanwhile the legal and study costs are mounting at Sunpine Forest Products, over a bridge that offers no navigable obstruction to canoes, but has become the target of aggressive environmentalists.

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