Public Land – Alberta’s Best Idea

Apology: For those of you who have been waiting for me (Don) to update my blog (a steadily decreasing number, I know), I must apologize. I know in this fast-paced world blogs are to be regularly updated with fresh content so that we don’t lose the interest of our dedicated readers. However, the simple reality is that I only have so much time in my day and other issues have taken priority. One of those issues is the writing of my memoirs about my experiences in wild places over the last 70+ years. I hope to post some of those memories here in the next few months. In the meantime…

Guest Blog: There is much debate in Alberta about how our public lands should be managed and whether or not they should be sold to private interests. In the following essay, biologist Lorne Fitch (a frequent guest blogger here) explains how Alberta came to have so much public land and the importance of those lands to our well being. The piece was first published in the June 2019 Alberta Outdoorsmen. Lorne’s previous essays posted here can be found by putting “Lorne Fitch” in the search box at the top of this page.

Public Land – Alberta’s Best Idea
by Lorne Fitch
Copyright © 2019

Sometimes, you need to be far from your mailbox to acknowledge a good idea in your own backyard. Such is the case with Alberta’s public lands. Public lands are those lands vested to us, the people of Alberta. In other words, these are our lands, in shared ownership, held in trust for us by the government of the day.

Lakeland Park

Public lands are a heritage we should not squander for short-term gains.

This good idea, public land, became clear to me while travelling through Texas, a place where a paltry 1.5% of the state is public. Imagine a jurisdiction with so little public land it hardly registers in the psyche of its citizens. In a recent issue of Texas Monthly, the state magazine, was an article on “75 Reasons to Love Texas”. Amid BBQ, cowboys and country and western music there were only two references to use of public land, and both were for federal parks.

Large portions of Texas seem like the land Cain was willed, where a cow has to pack a lunch to cross. Why it is in private hands is history, a perplexing conundrum in today’s world of expanding population, with recreational and ecological expectations to be met.
Contrast the Texas situation with Alberta where about 60% of the province is public land, private land is 28.5% and federally owned lands make up about 10%. What the remaining 1.5% are is unclear.

Alberta and Texas are roughly the same size. If we were to follow the example of Texas related to public land, as some politicians are suggesting, we, the Alberta public would be left with less than 10,000 km². That’s not much more than the current combined size of all First Nations reserves in the province, where the burgeoning population is stretching the limits.

We don’t have a Parthenon, an Acropolis or ancient palaces in Alberta. What we have is wild space, a natural heritage that has remained in public ownership and is bequeathed to us by past generations. This is an uncommon treasure, given the situation in much of the world. To say public land is part of our heritage is a point lost on some, especially those who see these lands as mere commodities, to be exploited for private or political gain. We might take pride in being Texas-sized but not in wholeheartedly embracing the Texas ideal of having all our land in private hands.

Some Albertans do propose converting the commons- public land- to private property, including newly elected politicians. The tug of war is repetitive between those who wish to maintain public land for the public good, and those who see sales as a get-rich-quick scheme. Sale of our natural heritage provides government a quick, one-time only influx of revenue. Selling public land, a continual generator of public revenue, means Albertans lose in the end.

Alberta’s public lands provide common space, particularly in densely-populated central Alberta where these lands are islands in a sea of private ownership. In the grasslands, the foothills and the boreal forest, public land provides big space. In conservation of native plants and animals big often trumps little, so the vast space afforded by public land is a bonus.

The story of the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a cautionary tale about the loss of public land and the space it affords. This bird, a subspecies of the now extinct Heath Hen, historically ranged over the coastal plains of Louisiana and Texas, by the hundreds of thousands. Now the species teeters on the edge of extinction, with about a hundred birds left in the wild. Of the original six million acres of coastal plain that formed grouse habitat, less than one percent is left. Virtually none of that is public land and restoration efforts are stymied by the cost of acquiring private holdings and the reluctance of landowners to implement land use changes that favor grouse.

Contrast that situation with our own imperilled bird, the Sage Grouse. In our favor, and pivotal to restoration efforts for Sage Grouse is the vast swath of publicly owned native grasslands in southeastern Alberta, within the range of the grouse (and many more species we don’t want to see disappear). If we dial back industrial disturbance, Sage Grouse are likely to thrive here again. Public lands provide Alberta a unique option for recovering the species, quickly, at low cost, one unavailable in Texas.

Instead of asking what good are public lands to Albertans, economically, ecologically and socially, we might better ask where would we be without them? In the face of an uncertain future we don’t want to preclude options, to fail to have buffers and hedges against changes we can’t yet identify. Hanging onto public lands ensures we don’t sacrifice options for the future.

Sunset Lakeland Park

Perhaps instead of asking what good are public lands, we might better ask where we would be without them?

History shows how private ownership, even when tempered by public regulation falls short of keeping landscapes healthy. The capitalist tendency to privatize, as the answer to a question unasked, has stumbled badly, producing degraded lands, lost opportunity, and increased public costs to mitigate bad decisions.

History has locked us into a legacy of past decisions. The Canadian government, in a bid to thwart American expansion and expropriation of the west- the Prairie Provinces in particular- developed plans to dispose of great tracts of public land for settlement. This included the lands provided to railroad companies to underwrite the costs of transcontinental railway construction, a method of binding together the disparate parts of the nation.

Mostly this was successful. The exceptions included lands unsuitable for cultivation and those where inadequate rainfall precluded successful farming. The latter were taken back under the public domain as tax-recovery lands. Along the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the forests of the Eastern Slopes were also deemed to be more important as essential watersheds, rather than in private hands for logging, mining and ranching. Much of the boreal forest was unsuitable for settlement and remained public.

The massive conversion of public land, during the Homestead era and after, to private land, brought us settlement and economic progress. To a degree those former public lands, now farmed, have given us a foundation of wealth, as measured in stark ledger terms. However, the conversion of those lands also has given us declining soil fertility, increasing erosion (especially for cultivated lands), lost wetlands, degrading rivers and the transformation of landscapes with vegetative and wildlife diversity to vastly simplified ones.

Not all owners of land are rapacious, unfeeling miners of soil, vegetation and destroyers of wildlife. For many, there is an ethic of stewardship, an understanding that applying the brakes, rather than continuing to accelerate pressures on the land is beneficial. But, with the exception of some minor regulatory oversight, a land ethic on the part of landowners is a personal decision. It can be shifted by economic pressures, societal leanings and successional events. Short term economic gain often trumps long term care. There is little, or no cost, or approbation for failing to steward a piece of private land.

For users of public land for economic reasons, you abuse it at your peril. This is not to suggest all public land is free of abuse, at the hands of industry, recreationalists or lease holders. Legislation, policy and penalties are available, waiting only for the resolve to use the instruments designed to protect these lands. Arguments can be mounted, and are, that we need to take better care of public lands, resolve land use issues though effective planning and sort out public access to public lands. That these lands are still in the public domain enable us to have those debates.

Many of these public lands used to be labelled as “other unimproved lands”, as if they were somewhat deficient, wanting or inferior. As it turns out, public lands are the greatest bargain we never really planned for; somewhat by default we now have this tremendous resource.

One of the virtues of public lands is they create a benchmark, suitable to assess our judgement and decisions related to land use. How do we know who we are, if we don’t acknowledge our history? The mirror of understanding is the land, the water, the wildlife. An examination of the difference between public and private land tells us how we have treated this place called home and allows us to gauge our success at stewarding the resources of today for future generations.

Public lands may be the last frontier. In some ways what remains is an accident of history. We would be wise to view those lands as a heritage, as long as they remain public. Public ownership suggests stewardship, not exploitation and certainly not disposal.

Wallace Stegner, no stranger to public land conversion with his Saskatchewan homestead roots, made the point: “The trouble is that places work on people very slowly, but people work on places with the single- minded ruthlessness of a beaver at a cottonwood tree.” Given our continual nibbling away at the public land base in Alberta we may not yet have evolved the societal or political maturity to understand the virtues of public land.

Public land shouldn’t be viewed as a shiny bauble suitable for sale. Barring a major economic collapse, as in the 1930s, public land, once sold, is gone forever. Once you eat the cake, there’s no cake left.

When 60% of the province is in public ownership and, with some exceptions, available to Albertans, that empowers us as citizens, especially the 81% of us that live in urban areas. It is part of our heritage, a visceral part of our societal DNA. Any government that proposes a liquidation of what is ours should be viewed as rash and heavy handed, trammelling current rights and freedoms.

Progress, real progress isn’t measured solely with what we’ve acquired, with what we’ve sold, with what our economic status is, but also with what we have retained. Government, holding land in trust for the people of Alberta, needs to draw a line around public land and say, “This is public land and public land it shall stay.” Public land is surely one of Alberta’s best ideas; let’s keep it that way.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at

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Bighorn Country—A Good Idea We Shouldn’t Squander

Note: In November of 2018, Alberta Environment and Parks opened a discussion about its proposal for the protection of the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River, or Bighorn Country, an area that has been needing protection from abuse for many years now. There is much controversy about the proposal as many don’t want to change their behavior or understand land stewardship. Concerned for the success of this proposal, a group of ad hoc retired Alberta Fish and Wildlife biologists, technicians and officers, wrote the following open letter. Please feel free to share. And if you are an Albertan with concern for Bighorn Country, please fill out the survey. The deadline is now February 15, 2019.

Don Meredith

—Open Letter—

                                                                                   January 2, 2019

The Honourable Rachel Notley                           The Honourable Shannon Phillips
Premier of Alberta                                                 Minister of Alberta Environment and Parks

Bighorn Country—A Good Idea We Shouldn’t Squander

Dear Premier Notley and Minister Phillips:

We are retired provincial Fish and Wildlife biologists, technicians and officers. Collectively, we have spent 1,106 years of our careers managing and conserving Alberta’s fish and wildlife populations. It hasn’t been easy. In retirement with no bonds to government or industry, we continue to care about the future of renewable resources and want to provide a legacy for future generations. We offer this advice on the Bighorn Country Proposal, based on our observations and experience.

The juggernaut of industrial development and agricultural expansion, the proliferation of roads and trails, the explosion in use of motorized recreational vehicles, years of political and bureaucratic neglect and the overarching issue of climate change has made the task of conserving fish and wildlife at times difficult, sometimes impossible. For those who doubt we have ongoing issues, look at the number of species at risk in this province. For example, all native sport fish species up and down the Eastern Slopes have declined, are continuing to decline and most are designated as “threatened”. That indicates our land management has failed and if we continue on the same path, one of the indicators of landscape health and a major attraction for people will disappear. That revelation should alarm all of us, not just biologists.

As part of our training and experience, we realize there are limits to our resources, and we overuse them at our peril. Unfortunately, this is not a commonly held perception, or a popular one. Our landscapes and watersheds have been neglected, we expect too much of them and they are coming apart at the seams. Less than 2% of our upper and lower foothills ecoregions are protected from industry and human destruction. Yet, these are the areas that provide our drinking water, control flood waters at their source and maintain water supply during droughts. Shouldn’t we be protecting these areas vital to our well-being now and in the future?

The Bighorn Country proposal, like the Castle and the land-use plans for the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills, is an appropriate answer to the question: What do we want of our public lands? It can’t be a free-for-all anymore. We have tested the limits and many indicators, especially fish and wildlife populations, have signalled to us we’ve exceeded ecological thresholds. To lose species that are currently threatened or endangered, or to threaten our future water supply because we can’t see beyond our own selfish wants, means we don’t understand stewardship.

The combination of Wildland Provincial Parks and Public Land Use Zones in Bighorn Country will provide a balance of recreational opportunities, while protecting the ecological integrity of the landscape, its biodiversity and source of our drinking water. The plan is not perfect and will require ongoing consultation and updating, but it is the best chance we have to conserve an important component of our Alberta wild heritage for future generations.


37 retired Alberta Fish and Wildlife biologists, technicians and officers, as follows:

Robert Adams, fish & wildlife officer/director, 1960–1993
Per Andersen, wildlife habitat biologist, 1978-87
Morley Barrett, wildlife biologist/fisheries director/ADM, 1969-2001
Ron Bjorge, wildlife biologist/director, 1975-2016
Ken Bodden, fisheries biologist, 1983-2012
Steve Brechtel, wildlife/habitat biologist, 1974-2006
David Christiansen, fisheries/habitat biologist, 1977-2014
Ken Crutchfield, habitat biologist/fisheries director, 1972-2002
Ernest “Buck” Cunningham, biologist, 1959-1965
Gary Erickson, wildlife biologist, 1966-2002
Dale Eslinger, wildlife biologist, 1984-2014
Lorne Fitch, fisheries biologist, 1971-2006
Rudy Hawryluk, technician, 1970-2009
Carl Hunt, fisheries biologist, 1964-1997
Jon Jorgenson, wildlife biologist, 1978-2015
Gordon Kerr, wildlife biologist/director/ADM, 1960-1981
Rocky Konynenbelt, fisheries technician, 1976-2016
Allan Locke, fisheries biologist, 1981-2013
Ken Lungle, wildlife biologist, 1970-2008
Bob McClymont, biologist, 1978-2011
Ray Makowecki, fisheries biologist, 1966-1997
Brent Markham, wildlife biologist, 1972-2003
Don Meredith, wildlife biologist, 1978-2002
Rod Paterson, fisheries biologist, 1959-1971
Duane Radford, fisheries biologist/director, 1966-2002
Kirby Smith, wildlife biologist, 1976-2010
Harry Stelfox, wildlife biologist, 1980-2005
Jim Stelfox, fisheries biologist, 1979-2013
John Stelfox, wildlife biologist, 1955-1966
Bob Stevenson, branch director, 1980-1992/archivist
Jim Struthers, fish & wildlife officer, 1964-1997
John Taggart, technician, 1978-2010
Bruce Treichel, technician, 1974-2010
Daryl Wig, fisheries/habitat biologist, 1978-2012
Bill Wishart, fish & wildlife biologist, 1957-1987
Hugh Wollis, wildlife biologist, 1977-2013
Ken Zelt, fisheries biologist, 1968-2000

Comments are always welcome (below).

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Braking for the Planet – Learning the Limits

Guest Blog: Continual and increasing consumption of products and services is a corner stone of our economy. Technology leads that charge. In the following essay biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) explains how the on-going pace of technology isolates us from the hard decisions that must be made to avoid catastrophic environmental, and yes, economic collapse. The piece was first published in the Alberta Wilderness Association’s Wildlands Advocate (March, 2018). Lorne’s previous essays posted here can be found by putting “Lorne Fitch” in the search box at the top of this page.

Braking for the Planet – Learning the Limits
by Lorne Fitch
Copyright © 2018

It would would have been the wildest hyperbole to have called my father a patient teacher, especially in coaching someone to drive a car. He came from a lineage where sons were expected to observe and then flawlessly perform whatever action was demonstrated. Thankfully, my mother enrolled me in a driver training course or I would still be a pedestrian.

There, under the tutelage of a very patient instructor, I learned many important driving tips, not the least of which was the idea that stop signs meant stop. They were not yield signs to motor through when the traffic seemed light. The other was the concept of leaving suitable distances between yourself and other moving vehicles to allow safe stops. I wasn’t to realize until much later what a grounding in ecology these fundamental driving tips were.

Technology has gotten in the way of good driving skills. Cruise control, a standard feature on most modern vehicles is a servomechanism that takes over the throttle of the car to maintain a steady speed as set by the driver. It is a curious bit of technology, at least as far as most of us use it. Watch, on any highway, as other drivers with cruise control engaged are reluctant to disengage it when approaching another vehicle, coming into a curve or an area of traffic congestion. Cruise control can be disengaged with a flick of a finger, yet the tendency is to keep speed up, despite looming danger. Brake lights flash at the last possible moment. Failure to disengage in a timely way can lead to unsafe and dangerous responses, collisions and death.

I offer the unsafe use of cruise control as a metaphor for our over-consumptive lifestyle. We happily give control over to a machine, are reluctant to slow down to match changing conditions and believe things will all work out. This is resource use on autopilot, mind unengaged, attention unquestioning, using things up at a speed that isn’t safe and hoping we can steer around the issues coming up much too quickly in front of our grill. Rather than cruise control, it really is cruising with little or no control.

My driving instructor instilled in me the concept of defensive driving, being observant, engaged and understanding limits. Perhaps these principles have application to how we manage the earth’s resources and our future.

OHV issues

There are limits to the amount of traffic a landscape can handle.

So, braking for the planet before the planet breaks is essential. Fundamental to this is the reality of finite limits to space, resources and energy. This is coached in a variety of terms. A tipping point happens when a small shift in pressure or condition occurs that brings about a large, often abrupt change in a system. Often synonymous with threshold, the beginning of a change, which once passed an ecosystem may no longer be able to return to its previous state because the resilience of a system is compromised. There are also regulatory limits, points in some variable up to which a risk of system change is permitted (as in legislation or policy) or accepted (as in social or economic values).

What are some safe speeds for resource use and what are the limits, tipping points, and thresholds and, where should we stop?

The concept is, before a certain point is reached, populations, habitat and ecosystems have the ability to bounce back, to rebound from pressures and stressors. Once that point is reached and exceeded, like a rubber band stretched too much, elasticity is lost, a snap occurs and the ability to rebound back to a robust form is lost.

It may be the change is dramatic, like a light switched off. Fish disappear with a chemical pollutant above a certain concentration, a swift change in the pH, an exceedance of thermal limits, or a stream drying up due to drought or diversions. For many species of wildlife, the cause is too much human traffic and the associated disturbance.

Arctic grayling population declines in the Wapiti River watershed were studied by Adam Norris for his 2012 MSc thesis. Many things can individually kill fish, but usually it is a combination which work together synergistically. The Wapiti watershed has an extensive land use footprint of logging, petroleum development, agriculture, motorized recreational uses, high road density and losses of riparian buffers. With less water came higher water temperatures; more nutrients, like phosphorus in the runoff, depleted dissolved oxygen, especially under times of low flow. High water temperatures coupled with low dissolved oxygen levels led to losses of arctic grayling in many streams. But, the critical threshold, the line between extant populations and missing ones was a threefold increase in phosphorus concentrations over pre-development levels, a function of changes from land use.

Recent University of Alberta research on the relationship between roads and grizzly bears indicated that areas with road densities greater than 0.6 km/km² had fewer bears. Areas with quality habitat and fewer roads had the most bears. Clayton Lamb, the principle researcher summarized the work with: “Not only do bears die near roads, bears also avoid these areas making many habitats with roads through them less effective.”

Other wildlife, like elk, avoid roads and areas within 500 meters of roads (and the human/vehicle traffic) which constrains effective use of habitat in landscapes with high road densities. Research on elk populations and their reaction to roads shows a threshold of 0.55 km/km², beyond which elk avoid such busy landscapes.

The change might be less dramatic, more gradual, like a dimmer switch, where a population declines on a gradient, until the light of resilience goes out. Fish and wildlife populations require a critical mass, a minimum viable number, to maintain themselves. This is expressed as the smallest number of individuals in a population capable of persisting over time without winking out from natural and human causes. Once the numbers drop below that point, the chances of successful reproduction to fill the void are overwhelmed by additive mortality, such as changes in suitable habitat conditions and/or competition with non-native species. The end happens, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The density of roads and trails that bisect the landscape is a case in point. Roads and native trout don’t mix well. All linear features¬ roads, trails, pipelines, skid trails and the like¬ intercept runoff, capture and redirect it downhill faster, increase erosion along the way and then dump excess water and sediment into a watercourse, to the eventual dismay of trout. Fisheries biologists generally agree that the best road density to protect trout is zero roads/km².

Travis Ripley, in his MSc thesis research, found increasing road density in the Kakwa sub-watersheds from 0 km/km² to 0.6 km/km² is associated with a decline in the probability of occurrence of bull trout from 60% to 20%, a 67% drop. David Mayhood, an independent fisheries biologist, points out, based on the literature, there is no road density threshold below which there is no effect.

In stark terms this means with any road development in a watershed, the best available science shows that bull trout and cutthroat trout populations can be expected to decline. All native trout populations are at risk in the Eastern Slopes and many species like bull trout, cutthroat trout and Athabasca rainbows are “threatened”.

Highways, roads, railways and to a great extent pipelines, powerlines, logging roads and Off Highway Vehicle trails are the fracture zones, the schisms separating and impacting intact landscapes and the creatures dependent on them. Where linear density has been calculated for the Eastern Slopes, it currently exceeds 2.0 km/km² and is as high as 5.0 km/km². Clearly, these are levels that exceed limits by several orders of magnitude.

Road density can be an index for many other factors like the total human land use footprint and the overall effects of that footprint on runoff patterns in a watershed. The land use footprint affects how water flows off the landscape, when it does and the extent of runoff. Removal of forest canopy, by logging, can increase flows in the spring but result in lower late season flows. This can exacerbate both flooding and droughts. Neither benefit native fish.

A collaborative research effort, undertaken in the lower Athabasca region (that includes the Athabasca tar sands area) and published in the Environmental Review journal (2015), documented the effect of land use on flow patterns and fish. The researchers found an increased flow variability of 20% in hydrologic patterns over time from land clearing, logging, road building and mining (including the diversion of streams to accommodate tar sand removal). This shift, from land use, increased sediment loads, contributed to other changes in water chemistry, increased the flashiness of watersheds and changed base flows from pre-development conditions. The effect of this on three native, migratory fish species was a 53-100% decline in populations following a 15% change in the landscape due to the footprint of human land uses.

Prairie grasslands and many of the bird species that nest there are not immune from human footprints. Jason Unruh, in his 2015 Master’s thesis “Effects of Oil Development on Grassland Songbirds and their Avian Predators in southeastern Saskatchewan” noted effects from noise, well density, conversion of native grassland, traffic and human activity. Limiting relationships on sensitive species became apparent at a disturbance threshold of only 3% of the landscape. As Unruh pointed out: “These are not large scale disturbance factors yet they still have detectable effects on grassland songbird abundance.”

At a global scale, given current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, the temperature is projected to rise 1.5⁰C. Doesn’t sound like much; an insignificant threshold. But, with that temperature increase comes the real risk of tipping points for the melting of Arctic sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet. Melting ice causes a rise in sea levels, maybe by a meter. Again seemingly insignificant, except for people living on coast lines. Currently the storm surge risk for New York City is once every 100 years. With a one meter rise in sea level the storm surge risk for the city changes to once every three to four years, hardly insignificant.

A threshold is a line drawn in sand, that an ecologist or a climatologist says is a stop sign, not to be gone beyond without consequences and repercussions. But, the line seems so tenuous, innocuous or unbelievable that we cross it and redraw it a little further on, to allow another wellsite, road, cutblock or another degree of warming. Once we’re accustomed to crossing the line, it gets easier to cross and redraw it again, for it does not seem anything catastrophic happens. And, nothing does, initially. The effects become clear, too late, in retrospect.

Extreme weather events, plummeting populations of grassland bird species, native fish hanging on by a fin and crashing caribou numbers are all grains of sand in the beaches of evidence indicating we have exceeded critical ecological and climate thresholds in our pursuit of economic advantage.

We are at a time where too many wants compete now with too few remnants of wild places and wild things. Because we did not want to think about or engage in limits we have landscapes replete with consequences and complications. It is easier to dream than to unseat a culture drunk on the illusion of plenty, impatient with restrictions, determined to wring more from a landscape than can be done sustainably.

Our lives should provide guidance since they include speed limits (which would reduce injury and death if we adhered to them), spending limits (but credit card debt is at an all-time high), eating limits (obesity is a growing problem), drinking limits (impaired driving is still a concern), physical limits (but we engage in little exercise) and so it is probably evident why land use limits are still ignored. We would be better served to understand and observe the thresholds.

We could still be considered lucky by others in the world not so fortunate with natural resources. We can be smart and live reasonably well for much longer with a degree of ecological integrity, or continue to be profligately stupid and crater soon, with our resource exploitation cruise controls locked on full bore.

Cruise control for our cars was an invention that made us lazy and complacent in our driving habits. Ignoring or avoiding ecological limits has had a similar effect on our decision-making function for appropriate amounts of land/resource use. New cars with advanced safety systems, to help avoid or mitigate collisions are already on the market. Examples include automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning and blind-spot warning. Imagine if we applied the concept of this technology to the landscape to help us avoid approaching or crossing essential ecological thresholds.

But, it isn’t technology we need, but rather the discipline of setting and maintaining limits on our activity. How hard can it be to apply the brakes? Perhaps, if we learn to use the brakes, the next step will be to shift into reverse and begin the task of restoration of the places where we’ve exceeded the limits.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at

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A Rock and a Hard Place

Copyright © 2018 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” is used to describe someone having to make a choice between two difficult options. It is indeed where our politicians in the Alberta and Canadian governments have found themselves with regard to building the Trans Mountain Pipeline that would transport diluted oil sands bitumen from Alberta to Canada’s west coast.

On the one hand, the pipeline would allow Alberta oil producers to sell their heavy crude oil in Asian markets, offering an alternative to the lower priced American market and increasing revenue to both the oil companies and the Alberta government. It would also employ many workers in its construction from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, as well as maintain or increase jobs in the oil sands. That’s important here in Petro Alberta, where our economy is welded to the ups and downs of the petroleum market.

Oil Sands Mine

Bitumen is a heavy tar-like petroleum that is mined out of sand deposits in northern Alberta.

On the other hand, the pipeline would increase the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and help accelerate climate change. Bitumen is heavy petroleum that does not flow freely (think tar or molasses) and requires much refining to break it down into components that can be used by industry and as fuel (the bitumen going through the pipeline would be diluted with a petroleum distillate to allow it to flow). All these processes require the expenditure of energy that comes from burning fossil fuels. Such burning creates greenhouse gases and warms the environment. And indeed, many of the products produced from bitumen end up being burned, expelling more greenhouse gases. The process of breaking down the bitumen releases a host of other pollutants into the air that eventually fall to the ground and enter soils and water, affecting people and wildlife downwind and downstream of the plants. As well, it has created over 200 hundred square kilometres of settling ponds where a toxic soup kills waterfowl and other wildlife, and poisons the soil, water and surrounding communities. In other words, bitumen is a very dirty petroleum product.

The transportation of petroleum, whether by pipeline or rail, risks the environment along the way. Spills occur, and as highlighted in British Columbia, the increased tanker traffic off the BC coast would threaten marine ecosystems.

Then Why Build It?
With all these risks to our environment, why are we so interested in getting this pipeline built? Simply, it’s about the economy. Although governments are aware of the need to reduce carbon entering the atmosphere, and indeed many have set targets to do so, if the economy is sacrificed in the process, they know they will not survive long as a government. If you don’t have a job or are otherwise worried about your future, you are quick to blame the government in power for not looking after your interests. That’s why “jobs, jobs, jobs” and “it’s the economy, stupid!” are often the watch phrases of a political campaign.

As a result, governments often shelve concerns for the environment when economies start to lag. This is especially true if protecting the environment requires citizens to make sacrifices, such as paying higher prices for goods and services or training for new jobs. And, if you are of the small-c conservative persuasion, you don’t like government meddling in the economy and generally believe the economy will take care of itself if government doesn’t interfere. That’s how our Progressive Conservative government of 44 years (1971 to 2015) often acted, and as the oil sands were developed, many environmental concerns were ignored and we are just starting to pay the consequences of those decisions.

A Recent History
When Rachel Notley’s NDP government came to power in Alberta in 2015, they sought to correct many of the problems the previous governments had ignored. For example, they created wildland parks to protect woodland caribou habitat in northern Alberta and help protect some of our headwater regions in the mountains. They also established a carbon tax to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and assist Albertans in reducing their energy use and costs. At that time there were three pipeline projects being proposed to move dilbit (diluted bitumen) out of Alberta and to markets other than the US: 1) the Trans Mountain expansion from Edmonton AB to Burnaby BC (Kinder Morgan), 2) the Northern Gateway from Bruderheim AB to Kitimat BC (Enbridge), and 3) Energy East from western Canada to eastern Canada (TransCanada), where much of the petroleum currently used is imported from the US and overseas. Notley understood how closely tied the Alberta economy is to petroleum and promoted both the Energy East and Trans Mountain pipelines. Both would involve the expansion of already extant pipelines and thus require less disruption of the environment along the right-of-ways. On the other hand, the Northern Gateway Pipeline would require a new route across some large wilderness areas and threaten the northern coast of British Columbia.

After winning the federal election in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government banned oil tanker traffic on the northern British Columbia coast, effectively killing the Northern Gateway Pipeline. This left the Energy East and Trans Mountain pipelines as the logical ways to get Alberta dilbit to overseas markets. However, both of these pipelines were opposed by many Canadians, including First Nations, municipal governments and environmental groups because of the concerns about spills and global warming. As a result of this opposition, TransCanada cancelled the Energy East Pipeline in October of 2017, leaving Trans Mountain the only pipeline on the table for getting Alberta dilbit to markets other than the United States. (Currently, Alberta dilbit is shipped to the US by existing pipelines and railroad tanker cars, both of which, we are told, are at or near capacity.)

Although there is considerable opposition to the pipeline in British Columbia, including the provincial government, the federal government continues to support the pipeline. As a result, several municipalities and First Nations have sued the federal government to prevent pipeline construction. When Kinder Morgan, the pipeline owner, threatened to cancel the pipeline as a result of all the delays, the Trudeau government purchased the company and pipeline in May of 2018 for $4.5 billion, fully assuming the risks.

With such federal support, it would seem the pipeline will go ahead despite the opposition.  Indeed, several of the law suits seeking to stop the pipeline have failed before the courts. However, on August 30, 2018, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled on a suit brought forth by coastal BC First Nations, quashing the federal approval of the pipeline. The court determined the National Energy Board’s review of the pipeline was flawed, especially with regard to protecting the marine environment, and the federal government had failed in its duty to engage First Nations in consultations. As of this writing, the construction of the pipeline is stalled while the federal government decides whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court or comply with recommendations of the appeal court to address the shortcomings. That place between the rock and hard place has suddenly become rockier and harder.

The Pipeline and Climate Change
Having long studied global warming and climate change, I realize the dangers of putting more carbon in the air. As well, I have concerns about the dangers to the terrestrial and marine environments and the possibility of oil spills. But as an Albertan, I also understand the need to maintain our economy such that people have sufficient opportunities to find jobs and prosper.

Pump jack

Alberta is a petrostate where the government jumps to the oil industry’s tune.

The problem is that Alberta is indeed a petrostate where oil companies say jump and governments ask how high. Government after government has failed to diversify our economy sufficiently to better ride out the ups and downs of petroleum pricing. A more diversified economy would have made it easier to transition from petroleum to renewable energy sources. But that didn’t happen, and for the present, petroleum drives the economy of our province. As long as there is a market for our heavy oil, we will sell it.

That said, the hard reality is that we are in a massive and rapid change of the earth’s climate as evidenced by the warming, sea level rise, severe weather, wildfires and mass human migrations being experienced around the globe. Yes, climate has changed in the geologic past but not at this rate, and we humans are definitely the cause of this change. In fact, the climate change we are experiencing is but one symptom of the much larger problem: our consumption of more resources than the planet can replenish (see also: Scientists Warning). In other words, we are heading towards a catastrophic failure of our environment to support us in the ways in which we have become accustomed.

To continue down this road is insane but we seem incapable of changing course. Our economic system is built on constant growth, and until we change to a system that acknowledges our dependence on a sustainable environment, we will continue our race to the cliff edge, much like Thelma and Louise with the peddle to the metal.

What is frustrating is that we had a chance in the 1980s to act on climate change and prevent much of what we are experiencing today. As documented by Nathaniel Rich in the August 1 New York Times Magazine: “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change”, both conservatives and liberal politicians had agreed that human-caused climate change was a reality and something had to be done. But the ball was dropped and the momentum swung to the fossil-fuel producers who designed campaigns to deny the truth. As a result, we are now fighting over pipelines, the plans for which shouldn’t have seen the light of day.

But that’s the past. Now, both the Alberta and Canadian governments need to get the Trans Mountain Pipeline built if either has a chance to be re-elected within the next year. The court ruling laid out a reasonable course for the federal government to comply and proceed. If followed, we will see shovels in the ground within the next few months (whether that will mean the re-election of the Notley and Trudeau governments is another issue). In the short-term, the economy will react positively. But in the long-term we are placing our children and our children’s children between a rock and a hard place the pain of which is hard to imagine. They will not forgive us.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Science behind OHV Restrictions

Guest Blog: With the creation in Alberta of the Castle provincial and wildlands parks, the proposed parks in the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River (Bighorn) and the recreation plans for the Livingston and Porcupine areas of southern Alberta, there has been considerable controversy over the use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in our wild lands. Unlike many other jurisdictions in North America, OHV users have had few restrictions placed on them in Alberta. The result has been the considerable destruction of fish and wildlife habitat, not to mention the damage to our potable water sources and the wild places where Albertans like to re-create themselves. Fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) has written about the use of OHVs and how they’ve destroyed much valuable fisheries and wildlife habitat (e.g., Tracks and Spoor and Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use). Here, he answers the challenges of OHV groups to show the scientific evidence for their destructive use (as if it wasn’t obvious). This piece was first published in the Lethbridge Herald.

The Science behind OHV Restrictions
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2018

There have been recent cries from some in the Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) community to “show me” the science behind restrictions on motorized recreational use. They should know that their request for “peer-reviewed” science has been heeded and a report from the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division of Alberta Environment and Parks was released in December 2017. The report is titled Ecological Response to Human Activities in Southwestern Alberta: Scientific Assessment and Synthesis . Perhaps the contents have not been widely distributed, or read.

OHV bog

”The sheer force from spinning tires on OHVs further contributes to and intensifies erosion…”

Ten Canadian scientists whose credentials are solid prepared this report. It relies on over 150 references that pertain to landscapes that are ecologically similar to those in southwestern Alberta. No relevant science was left out.

Here are some of the notable quotes from the report to provide a sense of what the scientific consensus is on OHV use:

“OHV use across all seasons causes a disproportionate level of impact and damage compared to non-motorized recreational activities.”

“Impacts are often irreversible.” “…any natural recovery is either slow or non-existent.”

”The sheer force from spinning tires on OHVs further contributes to and intensifies erosion…”

“Vegetation loss and soil compaction associated with OHV use contributes to conditions that favor invasive species.”

“Trail usage can change the overall hydrology of the area by creating new flow pathways and, therefore also result in increased sediment movement.”

“Sediment production from OHV trails was three times greater than from forest roads…”

“Increased sedimentation associated with linear footprints has been linked to population reduction of stream trout.”

Seven hundred peer-reviewed studies “found that both the noise and physical presence of OHVs in wildlife areas effectively reduced habitat connectivity, changed animal movements and altered population and recolonization dynamics.”

The authors have inventoried the amount of access in the Castle area of southwestern Alberta and document 1615 stream crossings. Motorized trails cross some streams more than ten times in a single kilometre. Even streams that provide critical habitat for native cutthroat trout and bull trout have almost one crossing per kilometre of stream length.

Every stream crossing contributes sediment to the system, in excess of natural background levels. This has profoundly negative effects on trout populations, and impacts water quality in an area that is the source for downstream water taps. The existing 50 OHV bridges need to be contrasted against over 1600 other stream crossings in the Castle alone and 3990 in the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills. The reality is that OHV bridges often still have fords beside them, where many users still splash through streams.

Installing a few OHV bridges and cleaning up litter is laudable, but barely begins to deal with the issues created by OHV use. This report should be a wakeup call for the OHV community and not a reason for further entrenchment of attitudes and opinions into a mudhole of denial. OHV users might be able to drive away from this evidence – but they cannot hide from it.

A telling quote from the report is: “The mere presence of OHVs is a greater determinant of the degree of associated environmental effects than varying levels of OHV use.”

This comprehensive, impartial and objective report by qualified Canadian scientists is the definitive assessment of the effects of OHV use. As such, it is time to start an adult conversation about solving the issues rather than continuing to trot out the prevailing myths, misconceptions, distortions and opinions to defend a recreational activity that most Albertans don’t indulge in, but that clearly impairs public lands and waters that all Albertans should be able to enjoy on foot.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at

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How Did They Get Here?

I wrote this piece back in 2005 that describes how our native fish arrived in Alberta. I’m posting it here because I believe it’s important information to understand when we talk about species-at-risk and why protecting habit and wild places is so important, not only for the well being of these species (many of which are species-at-risk), but also for our understanding of our connections with the land and environment. There’s something special about catching a native fish, whose ancestors migrated to the water body a few thousand years ago and subsequently evolved with the water body to best exploit its features. You don’t get that special feeling catching a fish that has been stocked from a hatchery.

[Note: The following was first published in the 2005 Alberta Guide to Sportfishing Regulations.]

Copyright © 2005 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Whether jigging through a hole in the ice, rocking in a boat on a gentle summer lake or casting a fly along a cool foothills stream, my mind tends to wander. Indeed, that’s one of the benefits of a fishing trip—the time it allows your mind to relax and consider things that are not of immediate concern but might broaden your perspective on the world. Being a biologist, I enjoy thinking about what’s going on around me in the natural world. Why is that squirrel chattering, that hawk circling or that coyote howling? Why does a fish like a certain color lure over another? How did the native fish I’m trying to catch get into this particular lake or stream?

Have you ever thought about that last question? It’s an easy one to dismiss by assuming the fish have always been in the particular water body. However, they have not always been here. In fact, like most species of plants and animals in this province, the fish that currently occupy our water bodies have only been in Alberta a few thousand years—barely a hiccup in the vast span of geological time.

Arctic Grayling-4

Arctic grayling most likely invaded Alberta from the north as the ice retreated.

Although the fossil record indicates fish have occupied the province for hundreds of millions of years, there have been breaks in that occupation. Over the last one-and-a-half million years or so, Alberta has been covered in glacial ice several times. The most recent glaciation occurred from about 20,000 to 13,000 years ago, and covered much of Alberta in ice thousands of metres thick. Most life was pushed out of the province and took refuge in areas where the ice did not extend.

According to the late Drs. Joseph Nelson and Martin Paetz, who summarized the scientific studies about fish reoccupation in The Fishes of Alberta (1992, University of Alberta Press), present-day fish species reinvaded Alberta from three distinct areas that were ice-free during the last glaciation. Those three areas, called refugia, occurred in the present-day Missouri and Mississippi drainages south of the Canadian prairies, the Columbia River drainage south of British Columbia, and the Yukon River drainage north of British Columbia. As the ice melted, exposing barren land, new drainage systems formed to move the melt-water. The melting didn’t happen all at once. Lakes and streams formed only to be replaced by others as ice or debris dams broke and new heights of land were exposed by the retreating ice.

As the ice retreated, fish from the refugia searched the new drainages to exploit the plant and animal life beginning to take up residence in the water bodies. Some of these drainages led to lakes where substantial fish populations could be sustained. Two large lakes that formed at the base of the retreating ice mass were the Glacial Lake Edmonton complex in Alberta and Glacial Lake Agassiz in portions of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. These huge water bodies stretched across present-day drainages and provided routes for many species from the Missouri—Mississippi refugium to occupy new water bodies in Alberta, especially in the Saskatchewan, Athabasca and Peace River basins. According to Nelson and Paetz, well over half (38) of the 59 species of fish that occupy the province today (both game and non-game species) came from the Missouri—Mississippi refugium, including the mooneye and northern pike.

The Yukon refugium shared many species with those found in the Missouri—Mississippi refugium. As the ice retreated from the McKenzie, Peace and Athabasca drainages, such fish as Arctic grayling, burbot, northern pike, lake trout and lake whitefish reinvaded the province from the north. This is probably the chief route the Arctic grayling used to populate northern Alberta. The other fish may have reinvaded from both the north and south.

rainbow trout

Although rainbow trout are found in many lakes and streams in the province, most were stocked from hatcheries.

Nine species of fish invaded the province from the Columbia River refugium, including bull trout, cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and mountain whitefish. These fish followed the retreating ice into British Columbia and up the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. As on the prairies, melting glaciers formed large glacial lakes in the mountain valleys. One of these north of Prince George allowed fish moving up the Columbia and Fraser rivers to invade what became the Peace River drainage in northern B.C. and Alberta. A similar connection between Moose Lake at the headwaters of the Fraser River in B.C. and the Miette River in Jasper National Park explains Alberta’s only population of native rainbow trout in the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Other connections over low passes in the southwest Rockies account for invasions of bull and cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish into Alberta streams.

Today, rainbow trout are found in many streams and lakes throughout the province. However, most did not occupy these areas through invasion. As described above, only the rainbows found in the upper reaches of the Athabasca River invaded the province following the retreating ice. Most rainbows found in Alberta today were originally stocked from hatcheries in the early 20th century to satisfy a growing demand by anglers for more trout in mountain lakes and streams. Many of these introductions were successful with the rainbows establishing breeding populations. As a result, the government developed fishing regulations to conserve these naturally reproducing populations and eliminate the need for costly restocking.

The rainbows found in the so-called “pothole” lakes across the province have also been stocked from hatcheries. However, because these lakes do not have inlet or outlet streams, the fish do not have access to the stream-bed gravels required for spawning. Therefore, these populations cannot reproduce themselves and require regular restocking.

Of the 59 breeding species of fish found in Alberta today, people introduced eight from outside the province and therefore are not native to the province. Two of the most successful introductions were the brook trout which is native to eastern Canada, and the brown trout which is native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Both of these species established breeding populations and are prized by anglers. Other introductions were not successful, such as several species of salmon, Arctic char, and large- and smallmouth bass. These species were unable to establish breeding populations for a variety of reasons and illustrate the importance of suitable habitat to an invading or introduced species. If invading species cannot find conditions suitable for feeding or breeding they have to move on. As well, competition with other fish species plays an important role. For example, trout generally do not survive well in water bodies occupied by northern pike.

As you fish your favorite water and contemplate the workings of the natural world around you, you might want to ask just how the fish you are about to catch got into this lake or stream? Did its ancestors come from over the mountains, or from refugia in the north or south? Or was the species stocked from a hatchery? The answers to those questions provide me with the added dimension of time to my outdoor observations, and help me better appreciate what we have and what could happen in the future.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Power of Lake Ice

Copyright © 2018 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Lake ice is a wondrous thing. When thick enough, it allows us to walk, skate or ski on it, or even drive vehicles over it to cross a lake or go to a favorite fishing spot. The ice also insulates the water below from freezing solidly to the lake bottom, allowing fish and other aquatic life to survive the winter. But lake ice can also be quite destructive.


Damage from expanding lake ice on the north shore of Wabamun Lake

On January 2, 2018, the ice on some lakes in central Alberta expanded laterally and encroached the lakeshore, heaving up the ground and damaging property in the process. Along the north shore of Wabamun Lake (from Seba Beach to just west of the Village of Wabamun), there was considerable damage to some buildings and other structures. Long time residents and cottage owners stated that they had not seen such damage from ice in over 60 years.


In some places the ice heave uprooted trees.


At the Seba Beach Heritage Pavilion the ice shoved a concrete slab into the building, causing structural damage.

What happened?
When water freezes it expands in volume. That’s why ice floats on water. However, as ice gets colder it contracts (not enough to sink). If lake ice is connected to the shoreline (frozen into the shallow lake bottom there) the force of the contraction exceeds the tensile strength of the ice and it fractures into long and sometimes large cracks. Lake water from below enters the cracks and freezes.


A pressure ridge over lake water caused by the rupture of expanding ice.

When the temperature of the ice subsequently warms, the ice expands, except this time there is more of it. If the ice is frozen to the lakeshore, the force of the expansion most often causes the ice in the middle of the lake to rupture, buckle and form “pressure ridges” that can be hazardous to travel. However, if the conditions are right and the tensile strength of the ice sheet at a particular moment is greater than the strength of the ice frozen into the shoreline, the expansion shoves the ice into the shore where it buckles and heaves.

2018-01-22 Fleming-IceHeaves-Wabamun

Shoreline buckled and rolled up along Wabamun’s north shore, creating ridges nearly six feet in height in some places.

So, what conditions are right for shoreline encroachment?

Snow Depth
Central Alberta has received much less snow than normal so far this year. The result is the snow depth on lake ice is only a few centimetres thick. Snow insulates lake ice from changes in temperature. The deeper the snow the less heat escapes or enters the ice.

Temperature Change
During the last week of December 2017 in central Alberta, low temperatures dipped to near -30ᴼ C (-22ᴼ F) and highs ranged around -20ᴼ C (-4ᴼ F). On the night of January 1, 2018, the temperature rose dramatically from about -28ᴼ C (-18ᴼ F) to above freezing (0ᴼ C, 32ᴼ F) the following day. During that night, the ice expanded causing the damage. The low snow cover allowed the ice to rapidly increase in temperature and expand. Similar conditions have occurred since, increasing the heaving.


Ice heave along the shore at Fallis on Wabamun Lake’s north shore. Of note here is the amount of lake bottom pushed up.


A closer look at the lake sediment pushed up with the ice.

What can be done?
Along a natural shoreline, the ridges formed by the expanding ice are a natural occurrence and actually protect that shoreline from future ice expansions (the ice rising up the ridge and falling back under its own weight). The ridges provide a fertile substrate for natural vegetation to grow and stabilize the ridge and help prevent nutrients from entering the lake.

However, if you own a shoreline cottage, such ridges might prevent you from accessing or having an unobstructed view of the lake. In such cases, you might want to level the ridge or otherwise provide access to the lake. In Alberta, such activity likely requires a permit from either your local municipality or Alberta Environment and Parks or both. You don’t want your actions to affect the health of the lake.

2018-01-07 Fleming-IceHeaves-Wabamun

In this case, the ice did not disturb the property nearest the lake but moved underneath it to buckle a concrete retaining wall that was at least 60 years old.

To prevent damage from future ice heaves, cottage owners should ensure all personal property (e.g., boats, sheds, etc.) is setback a sufficient distance from the shore. Construction of reinforced barriers is an option but they are expensive and often fail. If you are considering such an option, you should consult a contractor or engineer experienced in this area. Permits will also be required.

2018-01-07 Fleming-IceHeaves-Wabamun-2

The damaged concrete steps through the above retaining wall.

As our climate warms and we are subjected to extreme changes in weather, the chances of this kind of event happening again are good. We are all going to have to adapt to the new reality.

References: Some of the best information on lake ice behavior and how to cope with it is found at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. I found these documents to be particularly helpful: Ice Power! and Shoreline Alterations: Ice Ridges.

Postscript: If you own property that has been affected by the Wabamun ice heave, go to 2018 Ice Heave at the Wabamun Watershed Management Council website for information about how to repair the damage while protecting the health of the lake.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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