Archaeology and modern forestry in Alberta

Editor’s note: This blog post is derived from a recent paper published in the Archaeological Survey of Alberta’s Occasional Paper Series titled: Forestry and archaeology in Alberta: A history and synthesis written by Bereziuk et al. The second paper in this issue was also recently released and is titled: Dated ground stone artifacts from Tse’K’wa (HbRf-39), Peace River region, British Columbia.  

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Regional Archaeologist

Most archaeology in Alberta happens in advance of industry development when consultants are hired to ensure that archaeological sites are avoided or excavated prior to ground disturbance. For the last decade, about half of the new sites recorded in Alberta are found during forestry programs when consultants look for archaeological material in advance of tree harvesting and logging road construction. The contribution that forestry-based archaeology makes in Alberta is large.

Why do forestry operators have to hire archaeological consultants? 

Industry developers are generally required by law, through the Historical Resources Act, to submit development plans to the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, who then reviews the footprints for overlaps with known archaeological sites or areas with potential for archaeological material. Forestry is one of Alberta’s largest industries in terms of spatial area: about 87,000 hectares are harvested each year and over 2 million hectares have been commercially logged in Alberta since 1990. Archaeological sites in harvest areas can be disturbed during road construction, during logging (by heavy machinery that cuts trees or transports them), and by site preparation practices that relate to reforestation.

In many areas in Alberta, the ground is intentionally disturbed after harvest to encourage regrowth of desired seedlings: about 18,000 hectares of land in Alberta are annually subjected to mechanical site preparation by forestry operators. Archaeological sites in Alberta’s Boreal Forest are often quite shallow (within 30 cm from the surface) meaning that forestry can have large impacts on the province’s preserved heritage. In the big picture, the vast majority of Alberta’s forests and all archaeological material in the province are public resources. For these reasons, forestry operators are responsible for detecting and avoiding archaeological sites during development.   

Alberta’s forested ecoregions (data from Alberta Parks 2005). The Parkland is not a commercially harvestable forest type. South of the Parkland is Alberta’s Prairie ecoregion. Source: Todd Kristensen.
A timeline of major developments in the public ownership and management of forests in Alberta and Canada. Source: Todd Kristensen.

Timeline of major developments in the management of historic resources in Alberta and Canada. Source: Todd Kristensen.

How much has been found by archaeologists during forestry programs?

Forestry compliance with the Historical Resources Act began in 2000, with widespread adoption of archaeology programs by 2003. Currently there are about 20 operators who apply for archaeology permits each year and about 8 per cent of the incoming harvest blocks and logging roads are subjected to archaeological fieldwork (an historic resources impact assessment or HRIA). From 2000 to 2020, archaeological consultants have recorded 4,640 new sites in proposed harvest blocks and along proposed forestry roads. That’s roughly 11 per cent of the total recorded sites in Alberta (~42,000).

Forestry developments submitted to the Archaeological Survey of Alberta and the percentage selected for historic resources impact assessments (HRIAs). Source: Todd Kristensen.

Archaeological sites reported per year under forestry permits in Alberta (green bars) compared to site totals in the entire province (black). Source: Todd Kristensen.

Commercial logging is generally limited to Alberta’s Green Zone, which is a management designation that separates most of Alberta’s Boreal Forest from the White Zone (where industry activity is dominated by agriculture and the oil and gas/mining sector). There are about 10,500 archaeological sites in the Green Zone. Forestry accounts for 42 per cent of those sites, and at the rate of current discovery, sites recorded under forestry programs will make up 50 per cent of all sites in the Green Zone by about 2023.    

The Green Zone in Alberta (left) and archaeological sites in the Green Zone (right). Most sites in the Green Zone that weren’t found during forestry programs were recorded during historic resources impact assessments for pipelines or oil sands development. Source: Todd Kristensen.

What kinds of sites are found by archaeologists during forestry programs?

Most archaeological sites found during forestry programs are called lithic scatters: places where pre-contact people knapped stone tools. They may have performed a variety of other tasks and left different kinds of artifacts but, because of Alberta’s acidic forest soils, stone is usually the only material that preserves. About 90 per cent of the sites found during forestry permits have stone flakes or the byproducts of making stone tools. Forestry operators prefer to avoid sites, so most archaeological attention focuses on finding site boundaries, as opposed to recovering artifacts within sites. As a result, less information is recovered compared to other industries that often choose to excavate archeological sites rather than avoid them. Over 30,000 artifacts have been recovered under forestry permits and it’s estimated that over 1 million have been protected within site boundaries that were avoided during harvest and road construction.  

Percentage of site types recorded under forestry permits in Alber­ta from 2003 to 2018. Source: Todd Kristensen.

Percent of material types present or absent in archaeological sites encountered during forestry per­mit work in Alberta from 2003 to 2018. Source: Todd Kristensen.

Over 144 archaeological sites recorded under forestry pro­grams have yielded projectile points (spear, dart, and arrow heads) that archaeologists have used to understand technological change and culture contact. These points span a time period from 12,000 to 200 years ago. Forestry-based sites also include over 160 cabins or cabin remains that span the last century and a half. Other archaeological sites and historic resources that have been documented and preserved through forestry-based cultural resource management in Alberta include abandoned coal mining towns, railway construction sites, graves, historic sculptures, early logging camps and flumes, historic gold rush trails, an airplane wreck, a WWII P.O.W. camp and historic ferry cross­ings.

Conclusion

Archaeological work in advance of forestry has produced thousands of archaeological sites in Alberta. Since formal compliance in 2003, about 250 new sites are discovered per year in proposed harvest blocks and forestry roads. From 2015-2020, over 60 per cent of the new sites in all of Alberta are found under forestry permits. Archaeological sites are like Crown Land forests, they are public resources. Unlike forests, however, they are non-renewable. Once damaged or destroyed, the information and human significance of these typically shallow Boreal Forest heritage sites are lost forever. Archaeology completed in advance of forestry developments will continue to be a crucial component of the management of public archaeological resources in the province.

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