Rivers, streams, fens and bogs punctuate the surface, but that’s only part of the picture. Boreal wetlands are often highly connected systems with below groundcover subsurface water flow transporting water and nutrients to the trees, plants and wildlife, continuing the cycle necessary to sustain this delicate ecosystem.

This region is also the backbone of the forestry sector, an industry that employed 593,000 (directly and indirectly) and generated $24 billion towards Canada’s GDP in 2012 according to the Forest Products Association of Canada.

Old habits

In the past, much of the access required to undertake forest harvest was done in the winter, when roads were made of snow and ice—minimizing the potential impact to the ecosystems sleeping below. But as demand for forest products rose, the industry evolved which required forest management activities to take place year-round.

Resource roads, including those built by forest product companies provide all-season access to the thick backcountry. This potentially interrupts the flows of these wetlands and creates easy-use corridors for predators to hunt wildlife like the caribou, usurping that delicate balance.  

“It’s not an environmental organization saying [to the industry] here’s the problem and you have to fix it... it’s about how we can help each other resolve the particular challenge.”

The issue

The issue of roads blocking this natural flow has been an area of interest to Ducks Unlimited Canada who is working with industry partners to find conservation solutions to joint issues of concern.“But it’s not an environmental organization saying [to the industry] here’s the problem and you have to fix it,” says Christopher Smith, Forest Industry and Government Relations for non-profit Ducks Unlimited Canada’s Western Boreal program. “It’s about how we can help each other resolve the particular challenge.”

The problem is twofold. On the one hand, the roads can act as dams: “if you’re starving water and nutrients into

downstream areas, you’re affecting the ability of those wetland systems to produce the ecological goods and services that those wetlands
produce,” says Smith.

On the other hand, waters that are backed up by the road can lead to flooding and icing up of that road. “It can also saturate the subsurface of the roadbed and result in sinking or blocked culverts, so it becomes a cost to these companies to continue to maintain these roads,” he adds.

Major routes that the companies use year round can cost up to $100,000 per km. Operational roads, which are usually only utilized for a few months cost between $5,000 and $25,000.

The solution

Ducks Unlimited Canada was successful in securing a 3 year Conservation Grant from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative in partnership with forest research engineering group FPInnovations, and two forest product companies—Weyerhaeuser Canada and Louisiana Pacific Canada to develop a framework for identifying the risk of impact of resource roads on wetlands and constructing low impact access roads.

“(The goal) is to help the company determine the specific type of wetland, identify the risk of impact of a road on the wetland and if a road needs to be built what kind of construction techniques to use,” says Glen Légère, research leader for FP’s Resource Roads program. He points to methods like running drainage culverts subsurface or building the roads on a foundation of large rocks with adequate spacing between them to usher along the subsurface flow.

“We’re also developing techniques on how to deactivate a road or build ones that can be easily deactivated,” adds Légère.

John Daisley, Timberlands Planning Coordinator at Weyerhaeuser, says decommissioning can range from removing signage and planting a few trees to physically breaking up the road with land-movers to make it unattractive for predators.

The roads also act as easy access for hunters and people looking for a direct route to the backcountry.

“Forty years ago there was very little recreational travel other than hunting season,” adds Daisley. “Between the ATVs and snowmobiles and GPS units that give people confidence they can find their way back safe again—it’s having a bigger impact on the (ecosystem) than in the past.”