With the recent news of Donald Trump signing executive actions to advance Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, many Albertans, including myself, let out a sigh of relief. Albertans are employed in varying industries ranging from industry and commercial services, retail and hospitality, and of course, finance, government, health care, and not for profit. We have all felt the effects of our slow economy. And perhaps that’s why we’re sensitive to this news, because our finances are directly and indirectly influenced by this fluctuating commodity, which is subject to and controlled by other powerful economies in the world (HA).
But what are the consequences? I want to believe that pipelines are temporary and ineffective means to stabilizing and diversifying our economy but what if natural resources are truly the bread and butter of Alberta? You can’t change something, you accept it for what it is and make the best of it. Then the question becomes – and this question can and should be applied to most of our choices – what are the long-term risks of our short-term decisions?
I reach out to Alison Ronson, who is the Executive Director at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), to impart some wisdom and give an in depth look at the current state of the environmental conditions in our beloved province, Alberta.
I was on the funding committee for this organization for two years and have found true advocates and protectors of our environment. They’re influencing policy change and they’re doing it with a collaborative and leading approach. “Our” resources are unprotected, at risk and being taken for granted because we cannot or do not comprehend the impact that climate change has on our day to day lives (ever wish that our weather was more consistent?) And they’ve inspired me to raise my voice…
Why should Albertans be concerned about Keystone XL or the development of our oil sands?
[AR] In 2015, the Alberta government came out with the Climate Leadership Plan, which set out numerous steps the province will take to meet climate goals. Actions including carbon pricing, phasing out coal, starting to rely on clean energy sources. One of the important things to keep in mind about Keystone XL or any pipeline is the Climate Leadership Plan has capped oil sands emissions at 100 megatons (Mt) annually.
Before the oil crash, Alberta was producing about 75Mt and the province approved enough projects that would generate 130Mt of greenhouse gases. Then they implemented the Climate Leadership Plan, which means any new pipelines that are built have to ensure production does not exceed 100Mt per year.
I think the fear for environmental groups, in respect to pipelines, is that we’re building more transport capacity that is not currently needed and that will spur more growth in production.
What happens if we produce over 100Mt?
[AR] Well, this is yet to be determined. There’s a group that’s meeting, the Oil Sands Advisory Group. They’re a multi-stakeholder group consisting of municipalities, first nations, industry, and environmental groups, and their task is to recommend to the government the mechanisms to achieve the cap or enforce it. Like how do we ensure we don’t go over 100Mt and what happens if we do? What are the ramifications?
But the conversation about oil sands in Alberta is really a conversation about the economy…
[AR] Well there is an economic impact to protecting wilderness. In a sense that you’re protecting all the ecosystem services it provides, like clean water and clean air. Protected areas also mitigate climate change by storing carbon in soils of intact forests. It’s significant – the carbon storage potential of Alberta’s forests.
Also, when you establish a park in an area, it usually results in positive economic impacts in surrounding communities – people buy groceries, they hire outfitting companies, and the operation of parks gates in small towns. Also, other social impacts like improved mental and physical health and lower rates of youth delinquency. Parks can even generate between 60 times the money the government puts into them for maintenance.
So why don’t we hear more about this approach or see more action being taken?
[AR] I think people need to ask the media why they are not covering these issues. We’ve had somewhat of difficult time getting interest in the work that we do in Alberta, and I don’t think that reflects the concern people have. I would ask that people ask for more science news.
On a positive note, Canadian’s did have a chance to weigh in on the future of our national parks, for the first time. How do you think it went?
[AR] That was the first time the call went out across the country for mass participation, which is fantastic. It shows the federal government is interested in what Canadians have to say and potentially follow through on their commitment to restoring ecological integrity to the parks.
I received a lot of letters that people submitted to the government and the ideas page contained people talking about nature and the importance of conservation. I’m hopeful the overwhelming message to our minister is that our parks need to be for the protection of wilderness and wildlife, first and foremost, and in addition, there is an opportunity to educate people and to get them into wilderness and experience it.
If people are reading your blog and are interested, they can sign up to our email lists and we’ll always send out opportunities for people to get involved. Last year, we had public info sessions on the draft caribou range plan for the Little Smoky caribou herd and that’s what we try and do – be the public’s voice.
I am hearing more about declining wildlife populations and the efforts to restore certain species. How severe is our wildlife situation?
[AR] They’ve been in decline for the past few decades and for some caribou herds, we’re down to 3 or 4 animals.
At this moment, I feel my eyes well. “3 or 4? That’s less than the number of family members I have.”
[AR] Yes. Over the past few years, the focus has been developing entertainment value for people, rather than people wanting to see wildlife and wilderness. Parks Canada’s mandate is to ensure our parks are managed with nature as the number one priority.
The federal government has a recovery strategy for the Woodland Caribou and Parks Canada is responsible for the conservation and health of the southern mountain caribou herd. They’re doing some things to address it, like closing some trails in the winter so people can’t travel through but we think that the $87 million that is set aside for the proposed Ice Fields Trail can be better invested into a caribou rearing program or the maintenance of existing trails.
The Conservation Blueprint was released by CPAWS in October 2015. This is a living document consisting of maps and reports that tell us where conservation is needed the most and what is happening in our regions, in respect to wildlife populations, biodiversity, and industrial activity.
How has the reception of The Conservation Blueprint been so far?
[AR] It’s fantastic. It’s a tool we can take to different tables and use to influence decision making on the ground. We’re currently using it with multiple forestry companies to try and work on better forestry practices in Alberta, including the best places to harvest to relieve impact on caribou or where we need to restore our forest.
Also, it was the jumping off point for the caribou reports we released, which was the first time Albertans are being shown spatially what’s happening in the caribou range. People can look at which forestry companies are operating, how much disturbance is in each range, and how much intact habitat is left, which is not much.
What is the importance of intact habitat and environment to our wildlife population?
[AR] People don’t know the impact that oil and gas has already had on the province. Everyone is operating on the assumption that Alberta is mostly boreal forest but that forest is so fragmented that it no longer functions as an intact ecosystem.
The projection of how climate change is going to impact Alberta shows grasslands, parklands and the boreal forest moving north or will be lost to parts of our province. There’s a lot of animals, like birds, that will need ripen forest and higher elevations to find refuge from change of ecosystems until they adapt to it.
The corridors between Jasper and Wood Buffalo National Park are going to be very important for boreal birds. We’re seeing shorebirds, sandpipers and songbirds in decline already and it partly has to do with the fact their migration routes are changing.
Also, keeping an intact boreal forest is important for climate change, because if you have an intact forest, changes happen a lot more slowly. If the forest has already been impacted, then it can’t respond to changes so it becomes something completely different.
Tell me about the ‘Love Your Headwaters’ campaign.
[AR] Edmonton’s water, which is drawn from the North Saskatchewan River, originates in Banff National Park, and that area is protected. But only 2% of our water comes from the glacier, the rest of the water comes from the unprotected mountains and foothills in an area called the Bighorn Country, east of Banff, near Nordegg, Alberta.
That area is designated as public land use zones and for the past 20 years, had de facto protection from industrial activity but it’s not a guarantee that the activity will remain outside the area. Almost 90% of our water comes from there and I don’t think we have adequate protection in place to ensure we have a safe, clean water supply for the foreseeable future.
Is industrial activity already happening in the Bighorn?
[AR] Yes, so there’s logging in the foothills and there’s no sign of that stopping. There’s a large oil and gas play that’s being developed right now. The most worry some are the multiple coal leases inside the public land use zones that could be developed, right where our water starts.
I think the province is interested in protecting the area and it’s important to Edmontonians and Albertans. I would say it’s important beyond the province because the North Saskatchewan River runs into Saskatchewan and becomes the Saskatchewan River, and then eventually in Manitoba and into the Hudson Bay. It feeds at least 3 provinces, and we’re the source. There is a moral obligation.
If you were envisioning a future Alberta, what does it look like to you?
[AR] It looks like a series of connected conservation areas or protected areas that allows forest to regenerate and for animals to move to different ecosystems so they can adapt to climate change.
The rest of the landscape needs to be managed with conservation principles; so yes, you might be doing forestry, but you’re doing forestry that mimics the effects of fire. You might be extracting oil and gas but you’ve planned ahead and you’re sharing the road with a forestry company or a well pad with another oil and gas company and doing horizontal drilling.
I’m worried that we have gone too far to return. What’s next?
[AR] The provincial government has already made some great commitments. They enacted the Climate Leadership Plan and they protected the Castle Wildland and Provincial Parks in southern Alberta. We were pretty critical of the draft plan for Little Smoky Caribou Range and I’m hopeful they take our criticism and improve the one coming out for October 2017.
I think we have a lot of challenges and opportunities in Alberta. It’s hard to restore an ecosystem without some hard decisions but we could turn this province around and be an environmental leader in the country by owning up to those challenges and taking steps.
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Love you ‘Berta!