09/26/2014 11:29 EDT

Albertans Speak Up to Protect Headwaters of North Saskatchewan

Alan Ernst

Alan Ernst and his wife Madeline were world travellers for most of their adult lives. So when they decided to settle down, they gravitated back to one of the most beautiful places they’d ever seen: the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta.

There, the sharp slopes of one of the world’s most dramatic mountain ranges make a sprawling dive to the foothills, which settle into the continent’s vast prairies.

The Ernsts found one of the last undeveloped natural areas in the eastern slopes, in between Jasper and Banff, and built the first eco-tourism lodge in Alberta. The Aurum Lodge was constructed in 1999 and opened to the public in the year 2000. To this day it is the only dedicated, low-impact eco-tourism lodge in the province.

“I sometimes joke and say we are the antidote to Banff,” Alan laughed.

Their lodge, located along the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan river basin, overlooks Abraham Lake, which glows electric blue with the region’s signature glacial water.

But all is not serene in Alberta’s foothills. The Ernsts say a “free for all” attitude is allowing industry to encroach more and more into the wilderness each year.

“There is very little understanding for conservation here,” Alan said. “It’s all about promoting industry and letting industry do whatever they want. Unfortunately that is resulting in the loss of natural areas. We see industry coming closer every year.”

This year presents a crucial moment in the decades-long fight to protect the North Saskatchewan river basin — the Alberta government is developing a regional plan, called the North Saskatchewan Land Use Framework, that will decide how to balance the needs of people and the environment with industrial development and motorized recreation.

The region, despite being popular for recreation, is relatively undisturbed, says Sean Nichols, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“It tends to be low-impact recreation,” he said. “And we’re really trying to get those people, who live in and use the area, involved in the land use framework planning process.”

The Alberta Wilderness Association has partnered with Mountain Equipment Co-op to help bring the voices of outdoor enthusiasts into the process.

A camper, hiker or kayaker might be “one of the strongest voices that can be a part of the planning process,” Nichols said.

Previous land use planning processes have been dominated by municipal, industrial or agricultural voices.

“We wanted people who actually recreate and live in these areas to get involved in the process,” Nichols said.

“For a long time, Alberta has been of a Wild West mentality: few people and lots of land and resources,” Nichols said. But as populations in the province grow and competition over resources increases, that’s beginning to change.

“We’ve got more people, fewer resources and land to support those people,” he said. “We’re at a stage where the wild frontier mentality isn’t working.”

With a variety of demands on the land base, officials are now moving into a new mindset of developing integrated land use frameworks that take into account not just residential, recreational or industrial needs, but also the needs and limits of the ecosystem itself.

“We’re in a place where Alberta, maybe for the first time, is ready to make those tradeoffs,” Nichols said. “At this stage, we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Four Decades of Attempts to Protect North Saskatchewan Headwaters

Nichols’ colleague Vivian Pharis, a director of the Alberta Wilderness Association, has been involved in efforts to protect the eastern slopes region since the 1970s.

“It’s the most beautiful example of pristine eastern slopes Rockies out into the foothills,” Pharis said. “Our national parks don’t take in much foothill land so Alberta has protected almost nothing within its two foothills regions.”

The region has nearly achieved permanent protection twice before, before it slipped away.

“What most people don’t know is that in 1986 the government almost had this whole headwaters area protected,” Pharis said. “Prior to that most of these lands in the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan were part of the national parks system.”

A lack of public concern and an absence of government initiative allowed the region’s protected status to remain unlegislated, Pharis explained, and eventually vast areas were removed from within park borders, as boundaries designating Banff and Jasper National Parks were constricted.

Each time a policy plan has made its way into document form, Pharis said, it fails to become law, leading to incremental changes that threaten the integrity of the entire ecosystem.

Now, through the regional land use planning process, there’s an opportunity to protect 90 per cent of the North Saskatchewan headwaters.

“It’s essentially a no-brainer to protect,” Pharis said. “It would be such a boon to Alberta and this river system if those headwater did get protection under this plan.”

An advisory council could make recommendations to the province for land use plans in the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan river basin as early as this fall.

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