A Dangerous Man with a Dangerous Concept—Cumulative Effects

Guest Blog: The following essay by guest blogger Lorne Fitch describes how one person has attempted to come to grips with our future by measuring the cumulative effects of all we do on the land. The piece was first published in the Fall 2020 Nature Alberta Magazine. Lorne’s previous essays posted here can be found by putting “Lorne Fitch” in the search box at the top of this page.

A Dangerous Man with a Dangerous Concept—Cumulative Effects
by Lorne Fitch
Copyright © 2020

Once, in a far-off land, in another time, a ruler had a vision of an impending famine. To prepare for this contingency he bought up all the grain in the surrounding area to feed his city. The famine comes to pass, his subjects have enough to eat but he discovers, too late, the grain is contaminated and those who eat it will go mad. The ruler summons his most loyal subject and gives him all the uncontaminated grain that exists. He admonishes him to only eat that grain. The loyal subject queries his ruler— “Why me?” The ruler considers the question and answers, “because you are young and we will need someone sane, when we are all mad, to tell us what we are.”

In present times, many have adopted the myth of constant growth, inevitable progress and inexorable economic advancement to the point they have gone similarly mad. To inject some sanity in a growth-focused world, “to tell us what we are,” is a dangerous, yet necessary undertaking.

Over time there have been some notably dangerous men and women who have confronted the status quo, toppled conventional thinking, debunked ideologies, and pried off our blinders. Copernicus and Darwin come to mind as do contemporary examples, such as Rachel Carson, David Suzuki, and David Schindler.

Dr. Brad Stelfox is another who, in the parlance of the 1960s, questions authority. He does it in an uncharacteristically subversive way, using data from industry, government and academia. The tool he uses is cumulative effects assessment, or CEA. Using years of data, Brad developed ALCES—A Land Cumulative Effects Simulator—to objectively measure and track land-use activities and their accumulating footprint.

Our world isn’t limitless and our growth trajectory isn’t endless. Yet each new subdivision, road or cutblock adds up to transform the landscape.

We all talk about the future, maybe even believe there is one, but universally tend to think and act in the here and now. That’s why it is always a surprise when we run short on water, land, space and wildlife. It’s hard to add up the incremental, additive changes and losses, do the math over time and project that trend line into the future. When the future catches up with our present, we are deeply shocked, mortified even, with the limitations of our world. This assumes, of course, that we are able and willing to see how our past and present actions preclude options for the future.

That’s the mirror Stelfox holds up, showing our world isn’t limitless and our growth trajectory isn’t endless. We tend to see the world in snap shots— one well site, another subdivision, a new road or a cutblock appearing. We lack the skill to do the additive math of all these features transforming the landscape. Our memories are also imperfect about when all of these features snuck up on us, because we rarely look backward in time to see where we came from.

All effects, all land uses, are cumulative simply because everything accumulates and lingers both through time and over space. In a “tyranny of small decisions” a series of seemingly individual insignificant changes can accumulate to result in a significant effect overall.  The cumulative effect of stressors in the environment from our land-use decisions may, in some cases, be more than the simple sum of individual stressors. The synergistic effects may be devastating to ecosystems and ecosystem function.

It becomes seductively easy to believe the way things are is the way they were meant to be. Such hubris leads to blindness. Unless we claw the security blanket of growth from our eyes it will prevent us from recognizing the truth of our situation— that we are walking a tightrope without a safety net. We remain fundamentally, inexorably dependent on intact natural systems with a high degree of integrity for our survival.

While we live in the present, we are affected by the past and inevitably head into the future. It would be of considerable comfort to know what the future brings. Rather than wait for it, to invoke choice rather than chance, we can direct the future with the decisions of today. CEA is one, of very few tools, that gives us the capability to understand today’s actions and the implications for tomorrow. If we wish to move forward intelligently, this can inform the pathway to tomorrow.

We all yearn to divine the future, to understand what it has in store for us. For most things that is a dream, caught up with fortune tellers, or fortune cookies. But our brains have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into tomorrow and then to reflect on what we find there. It’s called imagination. If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it. Our ability to simulate future selves and future circumstances isn’t perfect however. It’s a fragile and imperfect talent that leaves us squinting and straining to see what it could be like to have this, or go there, or do that.

But as Stelfox shows, the past can be a window on the future if we organize, systematically analyze and strategically use existing information. By using the information from the past, assembling it as a trajectory or as a trend, CEA can help us predict the future if we continue on one path, or another. The actions and decisions of today are extended forward, so we can see where the path leads.

We cannot plan well for something we cannot see, especially the future. CEA becomes a useful, pragmatic tool to provide factual knowledge allowing an informed choice to be made about future options. As a pathway to a sustainable future, this allows today’s decisions to be measured against tomorrow’s realities.

The process of modelling cumulative effects neither defends nor demonizes the status quo, often termed the “business as usual” case. As Stelfox says, “While there may be no inherent right or wrong in our decisions, there inevitably will be consequences”. What it does is allow us to see where the decisions of today will lead us. The opportunity afforded us is that of a different, perhaps better trajectory to be set for balancing ecological, social and economic goals.

All effects, all land uses, are cumulative simply because everything accumulates and lingers both through time and over space.

Even though we build it everyday, the future eludes us. The greatest discovery in each generation is that we can alter the future by changing what we do today. The ability to simulate future circumstances, based on trends established, isn’t perfect but it beats guessing and it provides form to imagination. We need tools like this to make appropriate choices, rather than taking a chance on future circumstances.

Cumulative effects models can deal with skepticism, but not denial. There can be a tendency to dismiss the model when the results don’t correspond with an alternate view of the future. We all have different starting points from which our opinions about the future are formed. We may also have reasonable fears that manifest themselves in a variety of ways, especially if our view of the future is diametrically opposed to the results of a modeling exercise.

Sometimes messages about the future are unpopular because the listener perceives they will be affected in a negative way. Understanding what the future may bring introduces an aspect of change, from the familiar and expected to the new and uncertain. Those who want to do nothing and make no change can find enough uncertainty to avoid doing anything. The point of CEA is to inform change, while change is still possible, to exercise flexibility, alternatives and choice.

Brad is the first to acknowledge the science of CEA cannot give us all the answers. In fact, the most difficult questions, the most persistent problems and often the greatest challenges are not matters of science. They are related to values. It would seem the primary impediments to sustainable resource management are not a lack of evolutionary or ecological understandings—they are more related to social, political and economic ones. The problem is not that we do not know enough, but that we do not allow what we know to constrain our behavior.

CEA can tell us what is happening, or what will happen, but it cannot make us do anything about it. However, as Gordon Lightfoot intones, “If you plan to face tomorrow, do it soon.” The utility of CEA lies in seeking agreement on what future is desired, not through guesswork, but through the tools of science which include thought, planning and foresight.

East Slopes

Despite decades of progress, watershed planning for the East Slopes of Alberta is still in its infancy. This is a busy landscape that continues to get busier with a growing population demanding more from resource extraction, recreation and water supplies. Meshing these demands with a landscape which forms an essential water source for downstream water users, unique biodiversity attributes, wild space and stunning scenery is a task requiring more than maintaining the status quo.

What Albertans draw from the East Slopes is substantial—economically, ecologically, socially and personally. Yet, the rate of reinvestment isn’t proportional to the take and the signals of overuse are evident. Native trout declines are a message hard to ignore. Their plight is a signal that many of the values Albertans hold for the East Slopes are at risk. In some cases, like flooding, our land-use decisions pose a risk to downstream communities.

The East Slopes do not represent an inexhaustible supply of benefits for Albertans. We need to set ecologically-relevant limits and thresholds; without them we continue to spiral towards overuse. Investments need to be considered for restoration, especially where limits have been exceeded. Research needs, like better measurements of water quantity and quality, biodiversity and the effects of climate change require adequate resources. At the center is understanding and untangling the additive effects of every want and desire for the East Slopes.

First, we have to understand where we are, compare that to where we were (the historical benchmark) and assess whether our land-use trajectory will take us to a desirable future. Implicit in this is the sense we do not want to sacrifice attributes of the East Slopes in our present decisions that will have future, perhaps irreversible consequences.

Across Alberta, communities of interests are forging plans for the landscapes of the future. Fortunately, the Oldman and Bow watersheds have one of those initiatives, fostered by people who realize if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you and the final destination may be a surprise. The Alberta Chapter of The Wildlife Society and several funding partners commissioned Cumulative Effects of Land Uses and Conservation Priorities in Alberta’s Southern East Slopes to assist in an important dialogue on land-use planning for the Southern East Slopes of Alberta.

The results indicate cumulative effects present substantial risk to Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout in the Southern East Slopes, now and into the future.  As native trout species are a surrogate, or indicator of watershed integrity this indicates issues with the combined level of past and present land use activity, and points to concerns with other species, like grizzly bears.

 As a science-based assessment this provides an opportunity to better understand different management scenarios and clearly show expected outcomes. Preventing harmful future development, reclaiming temporary footprints, and managing access has the potential to improve trout performance in these watersheds. With different management trajectories, there is an opportunity to make a real change in terms of conservation.

Past cumulative effects exercises show the status quo approach (continuing to maintain land use pressures) is not favorable for future circumstances. Like a road, the future isn’t just a place we’re headed; it can be a place we get to create. Recognizing that, then a set of alternatives need to be posed and tested.

That is the essence of this exercise in the east slopes—a test of our ability to be good stewards of an essential Alberta landscape.

Douglas Chadwick observed about these tools that, “All are part of the challenge of learning as a modern society how to live the good life on earth without abusing the generosity of our hostess.” The work that Stelfox undertook to develop a method for measuring and tracking cumulative effects helps us with that challenge.

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

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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Waiting for the Miracle


Thoughts on Viruses, Vaccines and Hope

The sands of time were falling
From your fingers and your thumb
And you were waiting
For the miracle, for the miracle to come

-Leonard Cohen, Waiting for the Miracle

You will note that I have not posted to this blog in a long time. Like most of you, I’ve been trying to sort out just what we’re facing with this pandemic and how to cope. Whenever I sat down to write a piece, other issues intervened. As well, it became obvious to our immediate family that being distantly isolated from one another at this time of great uncertainty was not helpful. So, we’ve moved ourselves and resources under one roof, where we can look after each other and share expenses. That’s a lot easier said than done. Once the house sale and purchase were completed, we had our work cut out for us. More on that in a later post.

Right now, I’d like to discuss the hope we all have that a vaccine will be found and we will be out from under this pandemic soon and return to something akin to what we considered “normal” before March 2020. In a sense, we are “waiting for the miracle” in Leonard Cohen’s song. It’s good to have hope, we all need it to maintain our mental health; but it’s also important to understand the reality of the issue we face, and why waiting might take longer than we hope.

Viruses fall from the sky, every day.


As a biologist, I find viruses to be quite interesting. For an extremely small entity (about 1/1000 the width of a human hair), they have an immense impact on our ecosystems and health. Essentially, they are just packets of genetic material (RNA) that require a living cell to get their energy and reproduce. It turns out viruses are everywhere: in soil, water, air and on surfaces. They fall from the sky every day, and if you’ve been outside, they’ve fallen on you and are in the air you breathe.

Don’t be alarmed! The vast majority are harmless to humans, and our immune systems readily handle them. The ones the jet stream distributes around the world are soil or marine viruses that need to infect bacteria and other small organisms to reproduce. Indeed, most provide valuable ecosystem services, such as keeping bacterial populations balanced.

Other viruses cause diseases in plants and animals. Again, most are harmless to humans; but the few that infect us can be quite debilitating and lethal. The common cold and influenza (flu) are the most common maladies we suffer from viruses. But as demonstrated by the necessity to take a flu vaccine every year, viruses are constantly evolving and seeking new hosts.

Pandemics, Epidemics and Vaccines

Until Covid-19 came along, most people alive today had not experienced a pandemic, where the entire world is affected (SARS, bird and swine flu were epidemics, affecting only certain regions of the world). The last one we had was the 1918 Spanish Flu that infected 500 million people (~30% of the total human population of 1.7 billion) and killed 50 million (~3%). My parents were small children during that time but they remembered the concern of their parents. Of course, in those days, there was no internet, social media or TV, and commercial radio was still a couple of years away. So, people depended on newspapers for their news. Antibiotics, vaccines and painkillers were few. Because my parents lived in rural areas, the chance of infection was reduced and they were not directly affected, but the threat remained.

When I arrived at the end of World War II, my parents were very concerned with my health because they had had a rough ride with my older brother, who had survived some medical issues because of our parents’ perseverance in getting him the help he needed. So, when I came along, they ensured I had every opportunity to keep my health.

The badge of a generation: Smallpox vaccine scar after seven decades.


The first vaccination I had was for smallpox (variola virus), a vaccine first created in the 19th century. Smallpox was a highly infectious and lethal disease that had plagued humanity for millennia. I don’t remember receiving the vaccination because I was about two-years old at the time, but I was told I screamed a lot. Unlike a simple injection under the skin or into muscle, the smallpox vaccine was injected by repeated stabbings into the skin at the same site. To this day, I have a thick round scar on my upper left arm from that first injection—sort of an identification badge for my generation.

A booster vaccination for smallpox was also required. I don’t remember much about that injection either, being 5 or 6 years old, but I imagine it wasn’t pleasant as it still required multiple stabbings into the lower levels of the skin, although the technique had been refined (a multiple needle device). The booster was delivered to my upper right arm and left a much smaller scar that is not visible today.

As a result of world-wide vaccinations, smallpox was eradicated around the world in 1977. The virus doesn’t exist outside samples stored at research labs. Eradication is the goal of any vaccination program but it has only occurred with smallpox, as the result of a concerted effort by health organizations throughout the world.


Another disease that concerned my parents was Poliomyelitis, or polio for short. It’s a debilitating disease that primarily strikes children but also adults. Death rates in children could be as high as 5% but in adults as high as 30%. It is also caused by a virus (poliovirus). The virus attacks muscles, often in the legs, causing them to weaken and the victim not being able to walk or walk awkwardly. It may also strike other muscles including the diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe and often resulting in death. Many people survived the disease with no long-lasting ill effects, but others were not so lucky and had permanent disabilities.

As a boy, I remember attending our church’s Sunday school with a kid in a wheelchair who had survived polio but it left him disabled, unable to move his legs. Some others who survived had to spend the remainder of their lives in an iron lung that breathed for them. So, it’s not hard to understand why parents were concerned.

By the 1950s there had been several polio epidemics in North America, starting in the late 19th century, and affecting particular cities or regions. Because not a lot was known about how the disease spread, local governments where infections occurred closed down theatres, swimming pools and banned social gatherings. Parents kept their children at home. Sound familiar?

It was later determined that the virus spread through food or water contaminated with fecal matter. So, any infected person with poor hygiene habits could spread it. Like Covid-19, you could have polio and not show symptoms.

There were several attempts at developing a vaccine for polio since the 1930s but most were ineffective or indeed dangerous. Then in 1954 Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh developed an effective vaccine using inactive polio virus. It was a major breakthrough but problems occurred during commercial production when some companies failed to completely inactivate the virus, among other issues, and some people caught the disease from the vaccine. The process was refined and finally by 1955 enough effectual vaccine was developed to immunize grade school students.

I remember my mother marching me down to the high school I would attend a few years later to stand in line with other mothers and their children, waiting to get the Salk vaccine. I believe having the vaccination was a requirement to attend a public school. The result was polio infections quickly dropped off and the fear among parents abated. Then in 1958 the number of cases increased significantly among those who had not taken the vaccine, and fear rose again.

In 1961 an oral vaccine was developed by Albert Sabin and it was recommended that all children take the new vaccine as a booster. I remember receiving the vaccine on a sugar cube at the school I attended at the time. No needle pricks or stabbings, and as a result many more people, especially children, took the vaccine. By 1979, the disease was largely eradicated from North America but it is still extant in some third-world countries.

Post-polio Syndrome. Many people who had recovered from polio started experiencing polio symptoms again 30 or 40 years later, including muscle weakness, general fatigue, muscle atrophy and breathing and swallowing problems. It turns out these symptoms are not a return of the virus (as happens with the chicken pox/shingles virus) but a result of the damage the virus did those many years ago.

Herd Immunity

The biggest requirement involved with eradicating a virus is achieving so called “herd immunity”, where 60 to 80% of the population has sufficient antibodies against the virus to prevent infection (or reinfection) and further spread of the virus. In other words, enough people are immune that the virus has difficulty finding a suitable host, to the point that it eventually dies out.

Herd immunity is accomplished in two ways: 1) a sufficient number of people are exposed to the virus, survive the infection and develop antibodies as a result, preventing further infection, 2) a vaccine is developed and administered to a sufficient number of people and produces the necessary antibodies in those people to resist infection. Or a combination of the two. To prevent as many deaths as possible from Covid-19, developing a vaccine is the obvious answer to increasing herd immunity. And indeed, that’s what laboratories around the world are working on. As I write, some vaccines are in clinical trials. This is good news, and demonstrates what can happen when the collective will and energy of the world is mobilized to solve a crisis. (I know, I know: think what could happen if such will and energy were mobilized for the climate crisis? But I digress.)

However, this process does take time. Successful vaccines in the past have taken four to five years (if not decades) to research, develop and get on the market. This time around, the research and development have been streamlined, but there is a danger that shortcuts will be made. As the early polio virus trials showed, when a vaccine is rushed, mistakes are made. Clinic trials are where errors can be found without risking the health of vulnerable portions of the population.

Of course, the Cockwomble down south doesn’t think this pandemic is a problem and believes that most people should live their lives as they did before it struck. And when you contract the disease, just fight the infection and become immune as a result. Of course, such advice ignores the realities of the death and disability that this disease causes. It’s NOT just another flu, as confirmed by the high death toll our southern neighbour is experiencing.

Also, it’s very possible that some vaccines might not provide sufficient long-lasting protection, or only protect a portion of the population. In other words, it might take a while to achieve herd immunity if it’s ever achieved at all.

Pandemic Fatigue

What is becoming obvious is this virus is going to be with us for a long time, and we’re going to have to cope with it. That means life as we knew it prior to 2020 will not return. That said, some sense of normality is necessary just to cope. As I write this, it’s been nine months since the coronavirus first appeared. During that time, we’ve had to self-isolate and only converse at a distance or over the internet with our neighbours, friends and relatives. Many businesses had to close for a time, some never to reopen.

Economies cannot be shutdown indefinitely. People need food, services and employment. So, it’s inevitable that once most people understood what was required to prevent spread of the disease, restrictions would be relaxed to allow commerce to resume, conditionally. This worked for most people but there are always those who don’t like being told what to do even if it’s for the good of all. They complain about their freedom being restricted, etc. and choose to ignore the science. These people are the reason we are having a second and possibly third wave of infection.

All that said, coping with the pandemic does get tiring. I used to enjoy taking a break and going to town to do some shopping and maybe meet with friends or colleagues for coffee or lunch. Now, that’s become a chore because we must physically distance and wear masks if we wish to comply with the pandemic protocols. It is indeed nice to see other people but the masks are uncomfortable and form barriers that block more than just the virus.

However, if we want to stay healthy, we must comply with the public health protocols, not only for our own safety but for that of the vulnerable portions of the population, such as seniors and those with additional health issues. The bottom line is we will get through this. But we must do it together so we all can have hope and hasten “the miracle to come.”

Comments are always welcome (below).

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Is Science Important Only During Pandemics?

Guest Blog: Biologist Lorne Fitch has once again provided an essay for my blog. It is an opinion piece that was first published in the May 14, 2020 Lethbridge Herald. Lorne’s previous essays posted here can be found by putting “Lorne Fitch” in the search box at the top of this page.

Is Science Important Only During Pandemics?
by Lorne Fitch
Copyright © 2020

Do you know of any effective incantations, spells or potions to help us in this time of crisis and uncertainty? No? If there is a silver lining in the coronavirus disease pandemic, it might be to reassert in people’s minds the role, importance and prominence of science in our lives. Science provided the answer to what the virus was, is the basis for vaccine development and is the mechanism for direction on how to cope. Hands down, science trumps magic, effectively deals with ignorance and calms hysteria.


Science seeks to find the truth about what we see in nature.

The coronavirus will not be beaten by necklaces of garlic, snake-oil salesmen with fake curesor the limp pronouncements by partisan politicians. What will head it off will be the patient research and testing of anti-viral treatments and antibodies coupled with the calm determination of our provincial and federal medical health officers.

But we can’t turn science on or off depending on our whims, biases and our tribal affiliations on social media. Of course, you are entitled to your opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Science is the ultimate arbiter of knowledge.

“The good thing about science”, says Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and science spokesman, “is that it’s true, whether or not you believe it.”

In science, a theory is an established body of knowledge about a subject, supported by observable facts, repeatable experiments and logical reasoning. It is a formal explanation of some aspect of the natural world, tested and verified with evidence. Science can be described as observation, hypothesis, experimentation, repetition and finally conclusion. By contrast, much of what we are deluged with is a conclusion based on unsubstantiated, untested anecdote, the weakest, worst and most biased kind of information for decision-making. Examples include:

  • Climate change deniers who base their conclusions on exceptions in the research instead of looking at the overwhelming body of evidence. More than 97% of experts in climate science have concluded that climate change is occurring and it is human-caused.
  • Because it suits their narrative, many in the off-highway vehicle community refuse to accept the research results indicating their activity impacts watershed integrity, water quality, fish and wildlife populations and other recreational users. This perceptual blindness works its way into partisan politics, despite the unequivocal nature of the science.
  • Most of us, including politicians, industry and recreationalists cheerfully ignore the science of cumulative effects, the additive impact of doing too much, too often, on an already busy landscape. We have often exceeded critical ecological thresholds and the outcomes are enhanced risk, reduced system resilience, diminished opportunity and costly restoration.

Science seems ever under attack, by those who do not like the message, feel it impairs their freedom, limits their business and doesn’t match their ideology. History provides us a rich treasure trove of examples of groups, corporations, business and, sadly, politicians, who have predictably damned the messenger.

Then, there is the corrosive effect on science, occurring primarily in social media, to create an alternative reality where facts are, if not irrelevant, at least optional. It is the place of substitution of unfounded opinion for evidence. There is faith in that for which there is no factual support; disbelief and denial about occurrences and events for which there is. The numbing thing about the tribalism inherent in social media is your group routinely provides the conditions that spare you the need to think and so you get out of the habit.

The complex mechanisms of the modern world depend on the certainty of science, just as the medieval world was governed by religious dogma, ritual and faith. Reliance on fears, irrational explanations and faith gave way to deductive reasoning, multiple observations and objective, evidence-based analysis divorced from preconceived notions and outcomes.

To step backwards, relying on opinion and unsubstantiated intuition, rather than evidence is a retrogressive step in today’s age.

It’s not that science compels us to take a course of action; science can tell us what’s happening (or is likely to happen) but it can’t make the decisions on what to do. In any decision we have to weigh the benefits, the costs and the consequences. Science ensures an honest accounting that can’t be swept under a rug of bureaucratic euphemisms.

When we ignore, trivialize or subvert science it leaves many people unprepared and unable to discuss or understand the damage exerted on the atmosphere, the landscape, habitat for wildlife or on our individual health.

So, does science matter? When we come out of this pandemic, we might reflect that science matters because it can guide us, point us to the truth and, our lives will continue to depend on it.

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

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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Daylight Moving Time

Copyright © 2020 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

As I write this, it’s the day before most of us move our clocks ahead one hour to comply with so-called Daylight Saving Time. Of course, we’re not really saving any daylight. What we gain in daylight at the end of the day we lose at the beginning, and if you’re a morning person like me, you will see more darkness in the morning. That’s good for my star gazing activities but not much else.


The rising and setting of the sun are important environmental cues for our bodies.

I remember as a young person looking forward to DST because it signalled for me that winter was coming to an end and summer vacation wasn’t far off. But that was back in the day when the change was made shortly after the spring equinox (e.g., 1st Sunday in April) and daylight was already longer than night. DST also ended shortly after the fall equinox (e.g., 1st Sunday in October) when the days were already shorter than the nights. Thus, DST lasted about 6 months. Over the years, however, governments have slowly whittled away at Standard Time, increasing the length of DST, saying it saved energy. However, studies have shown that whatever energy was saved by not turning on lights, etc. was more than made up for by the energy used to take advantage of the increased evening daylight. So, now the excuse is that DST is good for business.

As a result, we now have Standard Time only slightly longer than 4 months of the year (1st Sunday in November to 2nd Sunday in March). So, the clock change in the fall is followed pretty quickly by the clock change in late winter. That issue seems to be frustrating many people and they are asking why we’re making these changes in the first place? It’s a good question. It’s been shown that the spring switch to DST, when an hour of sleep is lost, results in an increase in traffic fatalities the following day—most likely related to sleep deprivation.

Standard Time
The world-wide standard of a day being broken up into 24 hours and an hour being divided by 60 minutes, etc. was first devised by the ancient Babylonians who used 60 as a base for their number system. This system has stuck for time keeping to the present day (the same Babylonian base-60 system is used on the compass).

Before the invention of clocks and watches, time was marked by the use of sundials, where noon was determined when the sun was at its zenith and the shadow on the sundial was minimal. When clocks came along, they were set by looking at the sundial. As villages and towns grew, many placed large clocks outside on prominent buildings, such as the town office, so people could see the time and easily calibrate their own clocks and watches. But the sundial was still used to calibrate the town clock.

This system worked well for town residents and people who lived near the towns. In those days, most people didn’t travel much from their homes and farms, except to buy supplies or for social interactions. Some would make trips to other towns and perhaps further away but usually not very far. Those that did make extended trips found their watches (if they owned them) were slightly off from the time shown on the next town’s clock because noon arrived there at a slightly different time, depending on whether travelling west or east.

Then along came the railroads and their schedules. People needed to know when a train was going to arrive and leave, but if each town had its own version of time, schedules were impossible. Thus, Standard Time was created where 24 time zones were established around the globe and all communities within each zone committed to the same time. No longer were communities directly connected to Solar Time, or noon occurring when the sun was directly overhead. Indeed, as a result of political decisions, many of the time zones are skewed out of line with solar noon, increasing the disconnect with Solar Time.

Daylight Saving Time
Germany was the first to create DST, during World War I as a way to conserve the fuel needed to produce electrical power for their arms factories. Other countries soon followed. After the war countries attempted to continue the practice but met opposition in many jurisdictions mainly because people got up and went to bed much earlier than they do today. After World War II, advancements in technology—such as television—caused people to stay up later, and they were more willing to make the change. Much of the world came on board by the 1970s and ‘80s. Then the incremental increases in DST over the years whittled away at Standard Time and opposition to time changes has risen again. Only this time, most people want to keep DST, even in the winter when here in Canada the days are short indeed and DST will mean the sun does not come up until very late on a mid-winter morning.

Circadian Rhythm
The sun rising late in the morning causes an issue with our biological clocks, the clocks in our bodies that regulate various physiological processes, including hormones that control our moods. Those clocks operate on a daily or circadian rhythm. Not unlike mechanical clocks, biological clocks tend to drift if they are not regularly recalibrated. Exposure to natural daylight provides that calibration and ensures the clock delivers the services the body requires at the right time. Less light in the morning and more light in the evening can challenge our biological clocks as they try to align Solar Time with DST. Sleep deprivation, anxiety and various mood swings can be the result in the short term, and increased rates of diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart attacks in the long term.

Changing back and forth each year from Standard to Daylight Saving Time hardly seems a worthwhile practice given the negative evidence that has accumulated over the years. And neither does changing to permanent DST. I for one would be in favor of returning to year-around Standard Time, where noon is at least close to when the sun is at its zenith and the amount of morning daylight is near equal to that in the afternoon. I know I’m in the minority, as poll after poll indicates the majority of people would prefer permanent DST (in a recent poll, the Alberta Government didn’t even offer Standard Time as an option). But perhaps we shouldn’t be moving daylight around at all and instead should be giving our bodies a chance to reconnect with the natural rhythms that used to govern us all.

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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Freedom and Climate Change: A Numbers Game

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free”
—Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and the daily news reports of one climate disaster after another, many people still resist accepting human-caused climate change as a reality. I believe at least some of that resistance is due to the restrictions on our freedoms such acceptance would require if we wish to avoid the worst of the catastrophe. The problem is we will lose a lot more of our freedoms if we don’t respond to the reality.

Freedom is something all citizens of a democracy are supposed to cherish and indeed defend. After all, democracy is all about the freedom to choose our own leaders and governments. However, there’s a lot more to freedom than just deciding who governs us.

Freedom is generally defined as “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.” (Oxford Dictionary). Of course, the reality is different. Society through its legal systems has determined there are limits to how people can act or speak. Thus, some of our freedom is restricted to protect the rights of others. Obvious examples include prohibitions against murder, theft, physical or verbal assaults, publicly defaming others and hate speech, just to name a few. Generally, we accept those rules so society does not degenerate into chaos. But there are other factors that affect our freedoms, factors that governments and individuals often ignore, or can’t or won’t control.

Population growth is one such factor. Our human population on this planet has been growing exponentially over the last couple of centuries because of advances in public health, medicine, agriculture and technology generally. Currently we are approaching eight billion people at the rate of 82 million+ people per year (World Population Clock). Or put another way, the human population of this planet increases (number born minus number die) by over 9,000 people every hour. That’s a lot of bodies requiring food, water, shelter and access to jobs and places to recreate. There are only fixed amounts of those resources available at any one time. So yes, there is a limit to the number of people our earth can support.

Jasper NP

As our population grows, more and more people want to experience our wild places.

Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote in his 2003 book, The Future of Life, the gross human carrying capacity of the earth is around 10 billion people, provided that every bit of arable land on the planet is put into maximum agricultural production and all people become vegetarians (a lot more vegetarians can be supported off the land than meat eaters because vegetarians eat lower on the food chain where more energy is available). Of course, that’s not going to happen. Over the last few decades much cropland has been paved over, contaminated or lost to climate change (e.g., desertification, floods, rising sea levels), and meat eating is an important component of many cultures.

As we exceed our carrying capacity, life will become more uncomfortable for more and more people. Indeed, we are already seeing this in terms of increases in worldwide conflicts and the number of people being forced to migrate from distressed regions to seek refuge in more prosperous areas of the planet, such as Canada.

So, what is a carrying capacity that will allow most people to live comfortable lives? There is much debate about the answer. Some believe it is 3.5 to 4 billion people, or the population of the earth back in the 1970s. Others believe it could be 5 to 7 billion people, provided we can maintain our current agricultural production. With climate change, the latter will be difficult.

Thus, we are already over our carrying capacity and are just now starting to realize it. We’ve all seen the symptoms, even here in Canada, from rush-hour traffic gridlock in our cities, through crowded highways, campgrounds, beaches, and boat launches; and to the increased stress and frustration our population is experiencing as expressed in mental health issues.

The climate-change crisis is directly related to human population growth. The more people there are, the more that burn fossil fuels, especially in developing countries. As economies improve, citizens want more of what more prosperous countries have, and more fossils fuels are burned to achieve those goals. Indeed, many of the changes automobile and airplane manufactures have made to improve engine efficiency and reduce fuel consumption are largely negated by the increase in vehicle use. The improvements help but they don’t slow the rate of fuel consumption and dispersal of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, wildfire, rising sea level, air and water pollution threaten all our freedoms.

Watch Tower, JNP

What used to be “the freedom of the hills” is now the freedom to plan well ahead.

If you are someone who enjoys the outdoors here in Canada, one of the best ways to assess how population growth is affecting your freedom is to compare what’s been happening in our wild places over the years. In the 1970s and ‘80s, it wasn’t all that difficult to get a campsite in our provincial and national parks, even in the summer on a weekend. There were no reservation systems, and if you got to the campground by 4:00 p.m. you were pretty likely to obtain a site. Not these days. If you want to go camping in our parks in the summer, you should reserve your site online starting in the winter. Sure, parks usually keep a few sites open on a first-come-first-served basis, but those sites are snapped up very quickly each day. Reservations are also required for people to hike and camp on the popular trails in the backcountry of those parks. These restrictions are necessary if we want to protect the reasons we go there in the first place. But they do erode our freedom to move where we want when we want. As more people come into our country and province, it will only get worse.

Outside our parks, our wildlands are also getting crowded. Random camping used to be a way to get away from the crowds at designated sites, but now many random sites are also crowded, as more and more people seek ways to camp the way they want and not be restricted by the confines of an officially designated campsite. But because such camping is not regulated, campers often leave a mess and more land is denigrated, reducing everyone’s enjoyment of the outdoors—another freedom restricted.

And it’s not just the crowding. How many lakes and streams can you fish and legally keep one to eat? It wasn’t long ago in Alberta you could harvest fish at most of them and with generous catch limits. It was indeed possible to eat several meals of wild fish throughout a season. Not anymore. Eating a wild Alberta fish is indeed becoming an uncommon luxury, and in many cases requires a special licence and tag.

And if you’re a hunter, how easy has it been to get a licence for game in an area you like to hunt? You’re having to wait longer and longer for a special hunting licence issued on a draw.

Simonette Camp

Our freedom to move where we want when we want is being restricted more and more.

But it’s not just overexploitation that’s threatening our fish and wildlife. It’s also habitat destruction as more and more of us require shelter, food and energy. Logging, oil and gas exploration, unregulated off-highway vehicle use, rural residential development and urban expansion have all contributed to reduced fish and wildlife habitat. Reduced habitat means fewer wild animals to see and overall less wild land providing the environmental services all life requires. So, our freedom to enjoy and benefit from wild places is more restricted, every day.

The more people there are in a country, province or region, the smaller the share of the resources each of us has, including access to wild country to fish, hunt, hike or just enjoy for its own sake. So, even though we live in a relatively wealthy country, we are feeling the effects of overpopulation. Climate change is just one major consequence.

What Can Be Done?
With regard to population growth, not much. China tried to control its growing population in 1979 through its one-child program, where couples were encouraged—if not forced—to have but one child. Although the program somewhat reduced population growth, it was a disaster because the government didn’t consider cultural issues, including the need for families to have a male heir, and for aging parents to have help in their old age.

No. Government control of population is not possible, especially in a democracy. How many children you have is one freedom that is sacrosanct. Unfortunately, such decisions in so-called developing countries are often not decisions at all. If you don’t have access to birth control or are confined by your culture/religion to not regulate your births, you will have more children.

What is possible in a democracy is for people to decide, on their own, to keep their families small. And this can only happen if people have access to birth control, and can see a sustainable future.

The bottom line is the earth’s human population is going to continue to grow until there are no longer sufficient resources to sustain such growth, a point we might already be reaching. Once that happens, the human crises will only get worse (for a likely if extreme scenario, check out Climate Crisis Wipe Out). It won’t happen at once. But what will happen in the near future is that a lot more people will be showing up at our borders wanting asylum or to otherwise immigrate to escape intolerable conditions at home or to just improve their lives.

My question is just what is Canada’s human carrying capacity? How much of that capacity is dependent on imported food and goods? Would we be able to support our present and future population if we had to supply all our food from within our borders?

There are no answers to these questions because few want to consider them. We prefer to believe we have the freedom to buy food, goods and services from anywhere in the world. Yet, with climate change, population growth, etc. other countries may soon not be able to provide food in excess of what their own populations require.

Until we have a national and indeed global conversation about these issues and how to mitigate them, we will continue on down the same perpetual-growth road until our freedoms will be restricted to basic survival.

Copyright © 2020 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

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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A Fisher at the Feeder

Copyright © 2019 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved

“Don,” my wife said in a half-whisper. “Come quick.” It was an October morning just before sunrise, and I was doing my early morning routine of reviewing and deleting email messages that had accumulated overnight in my inbox. I followed Betty from my office to the darkened dining room where, through the window, we would often watch the birds and red squirrels come to our feeders hanging off the railing above the deck. However, the animal sitting on the railing with its snout pushed into a bird feeder was no bird or squirrel.

2019-10-19 Meredith-Fisher-1

Betty and I have lived on a rural acreage west of Edmonton, Alberta, for over 40 years now. We love it here, where we built our home in a mixed-wood forest mostly dominated by poplar trees (balsam and aspen). We have a small clearing where we grow a garden and orchard. Although we keep trees and shrubs cleared around our house and other buildings, we otherwise leave the trees and underbrush undisturbed because we appreciate the wildlife they attract.

As a biologist/naturalist, I enjoy watching wildlife of all kinds. The series of bird feeders attracts a variety of birds throughout the year. Although some of the feeders are “squirrel proof,” providing food for smaller birds, such as chickadees, nuthatches and redpolls, I also have a couple of hopper feeders for larger birds, such as blue jays and grosbeaks, as well as squirrels. As a graduate-student, I studied squirrels and their behavior. So, I appreciate the red squirrels that frequent our hopper feeders. (Red squirrels are amazingly intelligent problem solvers, but that’s a blog for another time.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt first, Betty thought this particular animal was a cat and was going to shoo it away. But then she saw its face. “More like a weasel,” she said, as I cautiously approached the window. Standing on the deck railing with its front paws hanging off one of the hopper feeders, the animal munched on sunflower seeds. It was larger than a typical house cat, with a long bushy tail and thick dark-brown fur. When I looked at its face, the first species that came to mind was marten, but that wasn’t right either. I have seen several martens (Martes americana) over the years. They are smaller and sleeker than this animal, and I’d never seen a marten here.

Having studied mammals most of my life, I knew what this member of the weasel family (Mustelidae) must be, but found myself denying the reality. If we had not seen marten here, why would we be seeing its rarer cousin, the fisher (Pekania pennanti)?

Fishers are indeed rarely seen. I was lucky enough to see one when I was hunting moose in northwestern Alberta, many years ago. It was up a tree arguing with a coyote on the ground. Both animals ignored me and I moved on, cursing myself for not packing a camera (this was back in the pre-digital-camera/smartphone days). However, I realized I was very lucky to have seen the fisher and the memory is tattooed on my brain.

2008-09 Meredith-RedSquirrel

Red squirrels are regular visitors to our feeders. They are a preferred prey species of the fisher and might have initially attracted the fisher to our feeders.

The common name “fisher” is a bit of a misnomer. Fishers do not normally catch or eat fish. The name evolved apparently from the anglicization of the word fiche, relating in some way to the European pole cat, which the fisher is not.

A very efficient hunter, the fisher hunts the prolific red squirrel, which might have been the reason it came to our location. But it is also an opportunity hunter, taking whatever is available at the time, from mice and frogs to snowshoe hares, the latter being a particular target. As well, it is known for being one of the few predators that will hunt porcupines. It will also eat carrion, berries, and as evidenced at our bird feeders, seeds.



The fisher eating some suet cake.

We watched the fisher for several minutes chowing down on our striped sunflower seeds. It was very efficient at shelling the seeds in its mouth without using its paws. Then I remembered to grab my smartphone and take some photos. By the time I returned the animal had moved down the railing to the other hopper feeder and was gnawing away at a cake of suet we’d placed at the end of the feeder for the woodpeckers. After eating a generous chunk, it slipped off the deck and disappeared into the woods. It was at our feeders for about 20 minutes.

I knew I was lucky to get the few pictures I did because I did not expect to see this animal again. But I also knew there was a slim possibility it might return for the easy pickings we provided. So, I set up a trail camera on the deck to record that eventuality. It was a good thing I did.

The next morning, I walked into our darkened kitchen a few minutes before sunup and through the window saw the fisher once again at the north feeder. I grabbed my digital camera and took a host of pictures through the window, using available light so I would not disturb the animal. As before, it spent considerable time eating at that feeder before moving down to the south feeder where it munched on the suet cake for a good period of time and then slinked off the deck and was gone.


Here the fisher caught my movement in the darkened window. Not seeing me as a threat it continued eating sunflower seeds.

On checking the trail cam, I found many pictures of the animal feeding on the north feeder. The south feeder was too far away for the camera to react. Because of the low light, the camera used its infrared flash to gather the photos, so all the images are in black and white. By the time it switched to available light (in color), the fisher was already gone.

2019-10-19 Meredith-TrailCam-Fisher-1

Using its infrared flash that is not detected by the eye, the trail camera caught the fisher at the feeder. The flash is reflected in the fisher’s eye and on the feeder to the right.

We speculated on the possibility that this animal might make our feeders a regular part of its daily routine. But I had my doubts. I knew they had large home ranges, and we would be lucky if it returned at all. Nevertheless, I made sure all the feeders were filled, the decimated suet cake replaced and the trail camera ready.

On the third morning, I camped in the dining room with my camera at the ready, well before sunrise. One thing we’d learned over the years is that the birds show up at our feeders when the pre-dawn light is at a certain intensity and not before. The squirrels, on the other hand, don’t show up until the sun is well above the horizon, which turns out to be a good strategy with regard to this fisher.

I started my vigil before the birds showed up. At the appointed time, the chickadees started darting into the feeder. I waited and waited, watching the birds come into the squirrel-proof feeders, taking their black sunflower seeds and flying up into the trees to crack them open. Then the blue jays appeared at the hopper feeders, taking the larger seeds for their use. Blue jays have an attitude about the feeders and will regularly drive the resident red squirrel crazy, flying from one hopper to the other as the squirrel races back and forth to chase them away.

As the morning got brighter and brighter, I could see that the south feeder was a bit askew. On closer inspection I saw the fresh cake of suet I had placed the previous morning was gone. Those cakes usually last more than a week and they would not be easy for a bird, squirrel or fisher to remove whole.

I was about to abandon my post, thinking the fisher was not going to show, when a large patch of brown fur slipped along the deck just below the window and went to the north feeder. Mounting the railing, the fisher yanked the feeder around shaking as many seeds as possible into the feeding tray. Then a blue jay boldly swooped down from its high perch in the trees right at the fisher, touching the shoulders with its feet. The fisher dropped the feeder to stand on all fours on the railing looking around as if wondering what was that? It quickly returned to feeding and the jay flew in again brushing the back of the animal with its wings. This time the fisher ignored the bird and the jay wisely gave up the attack.


The fisher after being buzzed by a blue jay.

On moving to the south feeder, the fisher yanked the feeder around looking for suet. Only finding remnants, it soon left. I checked my trail cam photos and confirmed the fisher had made a late visit to the feeders the night before (~10:15 p.m.), and was undoubtedly responsible for making off with the whole suet cake.

2019-10-19 Meredith-TrailCam-Fisher-2

Trail cam photo of the fisher at the feeder late at night

Commercially made suet cakes are cheap enough, but I wasn’t sure I should be giving whole cakes to one animal. So, this time I cut the cake into large pieces and wedged them into the suet holder in such a fashion it would be difficult for the animal to remove them.

The fisher did not return the next day, but did return the night before and made off with all the wedged suet cake. I had to come up with a better solution.

So far that was the last we saw of the fisher. I have since tied the suet cakes to the holder, and the fisher to our knowledge hasn’t returned to test my fix.

Fisher from Where?
Fishers live in a variety of forests, from coniferous through mixed-wood to deciduous. They used to be present from the northern boreal forest south into the parkland of central Alberta and all through the foothill and mountain zones. However, forestry, agriculture and development in the parkland and foothills, combined with trapping and poisoning, extirpated the fisher from these areas. So, perhaps fishers are reinvading their former range…? Or were they helped?

Back in the early 1990s, the Alberta Research Council released 20 or more fishers into the aspen parkland of central Alberta in the area around Elk Island National Park and the Blackfoot Grazing Reserve east of Edmonton in an attempt to restore fishers to their former range. Those animals quickly dispersed. So, it’s possible the fisher visiting our feeders is the progeny of that introduction. Then I discovered that the Edmonton and Area Land Trust recently captured images of a fisher in their wildlife camera on the trust’s Glory Hills conservation area—not too far from our home. Was that another consequence of the ARC introduction, or did these animals disperse to our area from their boreal habitats? I don’t know but you can bet I’ll be keeping my eyes open for further sightings.

And speaking of introductions, over the last few years, the Calgary Zoo has been shipping Alberta fishers (caught by trappers in northern Alberta) to the Cascade Mountains in Washington State where fishers were extirpated in the mid-20th century. The reintroductions are the result of a partnership among the Calgary Zoo , the Alberta Trappers Association, Conservation Northwest, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. National Park Service. If the northern Alberta fisher population is deemed viable enough to provide individuals for transplant, maybe it’s productive enough to make a comeback into its former range!


Badry, M.J., G. Proulx and P.M. Woodard, 1993, “Reintroduction of Fisher in the Aspen Parkland of Alberta,” (PDF) Edmonton Naturalist, 21(1).

Pattie, Don and Chris Fisher, 1999, Mammals of Alberta, Lone Pine Publishing.

Soper, J. Dewey, 1964, The Mammals of Alberta, The Hamly Press Ltd.

U.S. National Park Service, 2019, Washington Fisher Restoration

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.

Posted in Alberta, Conservation, Environment, General, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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 lafitch@shaw.ca

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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 lafitch@shaw.ca

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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).

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

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