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!

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