Lindsay Ashton: Road Watch in the Pass

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Starry night skies, the satisfaction of settling into a cozy sleeping bag after a long day of hiking, the soothing sound of a nearby stream; these are a few of the things that make sleeping outside so enjoyable. After two months of sleeping in the backcountry and quiet camp sites, I have grown accustomed to falling asleep to the sound of running water. Following a six day backpack in Waterton Lakes Nation Park, my WRFI group had the privilege of staying with our guest speakers, Rob and Loretta Schaufele. Access to indoor plumbing, a delicious meal, and s’mores around a bonfire made camping in their backyard a special treat. Their outstanding generosity and hospitality reinforced the stereotype that “all Canadians are really nice.”

However, rather than the sound of a trickling creek, the background noise throughout the evening was the rush of traffic on Highway 3, a busy road just behind the Schaufele’s home in Western Alberta. While this couple has become accustomed to the din of cars and RVs zooming by, I was surprised by the noise. Yet this highway creates more than just an annoying sound—it acts as a death zone to crossing wildlife and a major source of habitat fragmentation in the region.

After over a decade of living along Highway 3, the Schaufeles may not mind the noise, but they do dislike seeing the frequent and bloody roadkill along the highway. Most people, including myself, often see dead deer and other wildlife along roads, briefly mourn the “poor animal” and zoom past without a second thought. The Schaufeles, on the other hand, look at road kill as a source of inspiration and take the time in their busy lives to address this issue. Rob is the director of “Roadwatch in the Pass”, a ground-breaking program created by the Miistakas Institute (of the University of Calgary) to collect roadkill data along the Crowsnest Pass region of Highway 3. Their aim is to gain more knowledge about how many animals die each year due to vehicle collisions and record observations of wildlife movement.

Over the past several years, the program has been collecting data through citizen science. Citizen science implements local knowledge and allows research to be augmented by the participation and insight of everyday people. While this may not be an effective method for all types of research, it has worked well for the Roadwatch program. Part of the program involves a set of volunteers that hike along the highway in search of roadkill that escaped the roadsides. We got to experience this as Rob and Loretta took us on a walk through fields of grass and mud near the highway in search of bones and bodies. While it may sound morbid, the work is fascinating. During the walk, Rob proudly pulled out his smartphone to show us the program’s new app, which allows volunteers to record the duration of their hike, identify where they find signs of roadkill using GPS coordinates, and to submit a picture of the find. All this information is sent to a database that synthesizes it. A plethora of useful data has been collected. Now, that information is being used to determine the best place to construct underpasses or overpasses that would help animals cross the road safely. Though it takes time for animals to learn to use these bridges, they have been successful in protecting both animals and people from collisions. These structures have been effective in nearby areas, such as Banff National Park, where we drove on top of underpasses in route to another backpacking trip.

The Crowsnest area, Banff, and other regions of Alberta make up a small part of the much larger Yellowstone to Yukon bioregion. Connectivity is an essential part of efforts to conserve this area, and roads act as a major source of fragmentation. Not only are roads a direct source of wildlife fatality, fragmentation also causes in-breeeding depression, local extinction, and many other problems. It’s easy to get discouraged when faced with the challenge of conserving such a large and complex area, but the Schaufele’s efforts in their community and other local initiatives give me hope. As Barry Lopez writes, these people are “local geniuses” and their “intimate” knowledge of the land “rings with the concrete details of experience.” Success, I’ve learned, comes from the combined efforts of people who truly care about their homes.

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Carly Melchers: A Dam(n) Story – Part II

“One should admit at the outset to a certain bias. Indeed I am a “butterfly chaser, googly eyed bleeding heart and wild conservative.” I take a dim view on dam: I find it hard to learn to love cement, I am poorly impressed by concrete aggregates and statistics in cubic tons.”     -Edward Abbey

glen canyon damTwelve miles down stream from the Glen Canyon Dam I stand witness to turquoise rapids lapping against the banks of the Colorado River. Something seems amiss- what happened to the chocolate milk flow?

After a month of exploration in the Colorado Plateau I have learned a few things about this region- large bodies of water should pulse with sediment, Fremont’s Cottonwood whispers health, there is always more to uncover.

In the 1940s, the Echo Park Dam proposal caught the nation by surprise. People across the country rushed together to prevent said construction from occurring within the boundaries of the Dinosaur National Monument. The threat to the image of the National Park Service permitted a hasty compromise. Thomas Fliseshner would describe the negotiation governed by a “passion for a concept rather than a place.” Many were unaware the heart of Canyon Country would soon be covered by 100s of feet of halted water.

What was to be obscured?

Looking across the now filled canyon, a certain level of imagination is called forth. No longer can we scale the slick rock walls, following hand- and foot-holds to Ancestral Puebloan ruins. No longer can we walk the passages Homo sapiens called home for the past nine thousand years. Although archaeologists scoured the area prior to the dam’s construction, I sit with the realization no amount of documentation, be it photographs or museum specimens, can replace what has been lost.

April 21, 2015

A Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana) scurries across railing, sandstone body a stark contrast to concrete. They pause for a moment; possibly pondering the fatal 710’ drop to river bottom. We both find ourselves on the second largest arch-gravity dam in the world.

My intention is to participate in the tour of Glen Canyon Dam as a naturalist, to discover life and see the dam as a habitat. Certainly there is a touch of irony in this approach and yet I am surprised by the similarities of concrete and sandstone walls. Both are porous; an estimated 1600 gallons seep through the dam per minute. Channeled, the water collects at the down-facing base. Here, two Mallards are found bobbing in the wake as it flows into the Colorado River. As for vegetation, none is present aside from the Bermuda grass at the dams’ foot. On adjacent canyon walls, however, moss and Maidenhair Ferns congregate around groundwater sapping cracks. Below, double-crested cormorants perch on round river rocks, seemingly attracted to the non-native trout drawn to the released cold water.

As with many dams in the twenty-first century, the Glen Canyon Dam is filled with controversy. Initially I foresaw a tour of the dam as being an emotionally charged experience. In actuality what I observed north and south of the wall is far more stirring.

Behind the wall, Powell Reservoir stretches 187 miles when full. This massive body of water, with more shoreline than the east coast of the U.S., is insensible. Now, far more barren than native desert, fluctuating water levels have created ephemeral shorelines inhospitable to plant life. Beavers, once common, along with many other critters, are no longer present, lost in the wake of progress.

If the reservoir were to drain before me, a lot of one thing would remain- silt. Of all the particles carried down the many tributaries of the Colorado River, I find myself at the most southern extent of their journey.

My movement, however, is not prohibited like the silt, enabling me to venture south. Because sediment is deposited at the reservoirs floor, only clear water is released. Rufus sandstone against teal flow, though beautiful, reminds of what is absent.

The dam has altered the function of the Colorado River and thus adjacent riparian communities. Without flash floods and alluvium deposits, sandbars have eroded without being replaced. As a result native flora and fauna have declined, specifically by the replacement of Fremont’s Cottonwood with invasive Tamarisk, a plant notorious for drinking copious amounts of water.

Much more could be said. Calcium carbonate deposits on Glen Canyon walls tell a story of dwindling water levels. Silt accumulates more each year. In 1996, the Bureau of Reclamation attributed the loss of 600,000 acre feet of water loss to evaporation, enough to meet the annual domestic needs of two million people. Much more should be said.

Dams are symbolic. They represent humanities ability to suppress, control and domesticate the wild animal within each of us. As I reflect on their nature, I wonder about the color of my own flow, if anything is holding me back from fulfilling my role.

I invite you to do the same.

Maggie Grinnell: Environmentalist Eh? What’s That? : Alberta’s (lack of) Environmental Priorities

Maggie_2When we first entered Canada, Alberta greeted us with rugged mountains, open sky and clear abundant water. As we drove, all we could see were endless fields of wind turbines and large recycling bins on each highway and long stretches. My naive mind couldn’t have been more excited to explore this outstandingly beautiful and environmentally focused area. Man, was I wrong…

At one point Canada was known as a global leader not only for their economic success but their environmental movement as well. Over the past decade, expansive oil and gas development has taken over as the federal government’s top priority. This leaves the provincial public land in Alberta as essentially “free-range.” Citizens and large companies can log, recreate and degrade as they please with no in-depth environmental regulations or policies. In fact, the forest industry has already expanded 1.6 million hectares of Alberta forests into 25 million cubic meters of timber. Alberta is building more roads and clear-cuts more than ever. Where does this leave the wildlife to migrate and live? And how do the citizens of Alberta feel about the endless development?

Through meeting with local citizens, biologists and council members, we’ve learned that Alberta’s lack of concern for their soil and habitat is causing drastic declines in grizzly bear populations. There are only 700 grizzly bears remaining in all of Alberta wilderness areas. Habitat fragmentation is pushing bears out of the forests into backyards and ranches. Nobody wants that. Not only for the safety of citizens and animals but also for the health of the grizzly. Yet, Alberta is continuing to develop and develop with little effort or action toward conservation or protection.

We saw one of the largest park developments that I’d ever experienced in Banff National Park with over 4 million visitors a year! There is an entire city within the park with restaurants, bars, shops and more shops. There was even a Gap! Who needs a Gap when you should be embracing all of the beauty and wonder around you? As we began our seven-day backpacking trip through Banff, I felt like it was a mini Disney World filled with endless tourists swarming the paths. On our journey, we saw little to no grizzly signs anywhere. To be honest, we saw very little wildlife at all. Why is the government failing to protect one of the most endangered species? Why are citizens of Alberta and tourists continuously supporting development with no concern for their own future?

Mike Cardinal, past minister of Sustainable Development said in a CBC report that closing roads or limiting access may, “have a very negative impact on the overall economy in Alberta…We’re used to a certain kind of lifestyle in Alberta. We have to keep developing our resources because resources have to be developed” (Gailus, 2010). It’s very clear that along with governmental authorities, large populations also prioritize economic benefit and personal lifestyles with little consideration to the environment or wildlife.

A local resident addressed a great deal of concern that the grizzlies are going to entirely disappear in Alberta and that their land will be left to nothing within generations. However, not all Albertans feel this way and there are definitely efforts contributing to wildlife and environmental issues. We were able to meet with Shannon Frank, from the Old Man River Watershed, which is a small nonprofit that works toward community collaboration at a local scale – sounds well-rounded and productive, right? Unfortunately, without the federal government being fully supportive and without providing incentive to corporations or citizens to participate, there is little progress. Why would logging companies not log in certain areas if no one is stopping them? Why would developers not continue to build resorts and houses if there are no zoning laws or policies to protect wildlife?

Alberta is evidently behind most countries in their efforts toward conservation, largely due to the lack of government policy and control. Hopefully, perhaps with a new party being elected this fall, Alberta’s environmental record will improve and their respect for all wildlife will too. Until then, it seems that more wilderness areas will continue to be developed and controlled by the resource-extracting loving government. Expansion will also prosper as grizzly numbers decline and soil depletes. As much as I appreciated my time in Alberta, I hope that the clear water and outstanding mountains will reflect their true environmental record the next time I return. Don’t let the wind turbines fool you too!

Madi Lupinek: Jumbo Glacier Resort: A Jumbo Failure?

DSC_4040Imagine an epic wilderness: rugged mountains adorned with glaciers and snow, glacial waterfalls trickling down slope into fields of slate and shale forming crystal blue ponds before dropping down to the coniferous tree line. This is how I would describe British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I got to explore a glacier for the first time in my life!

It’s been a priceless experience so far, but what brings us exploring here is something that’s threatening the natural beauty and wild of this place. There’s a proposed plan to construct the Jumbo Glacier Resort and Jumbo municipality in the area. Since the plan of the project in 1991, it’s faced opposition from environmentalists, locals, competing ski businesses, and First Nations. Development would be taking place in moderate to high-risk avalanche zones, demonstrating lack of safety standards and compliance from expired environmental certificates. To renew the certificates, developers had to prove to the provincial government that “substantial” development was underway. They attempted to do this by pouring two slabs of concrete as building “foundations” on unprepared ground, both slabs in avalanche hazard zones. The environment ministry deemed this not a substantial start and that developers would have to resubmit an assessment, which is a huge set back. The project may or may not be dead depending on if developers start over and resubmit.

A popular message of opposition seen on bumper stickers and posters around British Columbia is “Keep Jumbo Wild,” and there are many reasons to do so. One reason that encompasses many others is threatening the grizzly bear populations. Grizzlies are an umbrella and indicator species, meaning their health is indicative of the health of other species and of other potential problems affecting the ecosystem. Chasing them out with Jumbo Glacier Resort would mean chasing out other wildlife species and the essential “wilderness” characteristics of the area that has been loved and protected for years.

Not only is the grizzly valuable on an ecological level, but on a spiritual level as well. The Jumbo Glacier Resort has faced major opposition from the Ktunaxa First Nation who traditionally used the Jumbo Valley area of the Purcells. To them, Jumbo is Qat’muk, the grizzly’s place of spiritual healing, and the grizzly is one of the Ktunaxa’s principle spirits, making the Jumbo Valley of high spiritual significance. The developers of Jumbo Glacier Resort would be bulldozing Ktunaxa culture, a culture that originally occupied and controlled this area.

Not only is the Jumbo Glacier Resort not planned to be in a safe area, but it’s also a threat to the ecologically and spiritually important grizzly bear, and the Ktunaxa Nation’s culture. So where is the good in this development? It’s hard to find. According to Arnör Larson, an esteemed climber and concerned citizen that we spoke with, at most public hearings he’s been to within the past 20 years, there’s been around 95% (estimated) public opposition to the development. We also spoke with the first Canadian to climb Mount Everest, Pat Morrow, who seemed pretty sure in saying that the project is basically history now. Only time will tell whether Jumbo Glacier Resort plans will be a jumbo success or jumbo failure, but for now we can enjoy the wild beauty of the undeveloped Purcells, drinking straight from the glaciers, breathing in the fresh mountain air, and maybe observing a few grizzlies on our hikes.