Opinion: Our reverence for eastern slopes started a long time ago

On an early 1970s university field trip to the coal strip mines of BC’s Elk Valley a small group of us listened in disbelief to a mining engineers’ description of how they were leveling one of the mountains. Somewhat in shock at this cavalier attitude, we asked if this was wise, environmentally, ethically and perhaps in the back of our minds, spiritually to do this. His response was equally shocking. “Look around,” he said, “we have so many mountains in B.C., we won’t miss one.”

He had a point. B.C. is mostly mountain landscapes and, in his mind, had a surplus of them. But Alberta isn’t in that enviable position. Our share of the Rocky Mountains and their foothills is meagre by comparison. In contrast to B.C., we depend much more on our eastern slopes, especially as a primary water source.

Maybe our reverence for the eastern slopes started before Alberta was a province with federal bureaucrats like William Pearce and J. B. Harkin. They ensured most of the eastern slopes were set aside from settlement — for national parks, as game reserves, for watershed protection and as a timber source.

We Albertans often scoff at the initiatives of what we perceive as an eastern federal government, but watershed protection through “forest reserves” was one of this nation’s great and (hopefully) enduring ideas. The Eastern Slopes Policy of the 1970s cemented in Albertan’s minds these landscapes were important, had to be protected, properly stewarded and it was a matter of public trust that they were maintained.

Whether through history, experience or perhaps osmosis, Albertans have come to view the eastern slopes as sacrosanct, a landscape dedicated to the public good.

The idea and images of mountain tops blasted off, stream valleys filled with overburden, water contaminated, lost recreation opportunities and diminishing biodiversity have galvanized Albertans. Why? Because many have gone to Google Earth and seen the blackened images from the Elk Valley in B.C. That is not our shared vision for the future of the eastern slopes.

Many Albertans can’t travel to exotic locations but we can go to the province’s “backyard”— the eastern slopes. Few things are as important as a person’s backyard and clean drinking water. Meddle and tinker with either (let alone both) and the consequences aren’t trivial.

Albertans view the eastern slopes as our backyard. In that shared backyard is an opportunity to relax, explore, be inspired and escape the developed world. Places in the eastern slopes can take on mythical properties as we search for personal space, in shaded forest, amidst mountain backdrops with the plunge of clear streams and rivers. This is where we find possibilities, peace and personal rewards.

The UCP government has seriously misjudged the sentiments of Albertans and our deep-seated appreciation of the eastern slopes. On top of existing cumulative impacts, throwing open the eastern slopes to coal mining represents a serious violation of the public’s trust and a failure to properly steward these landscapes for the public good.

Efforts to stimulate the economy by aiding and abetting a sunset industry have all the hallmarks of blinkered thinking. Much like a murder of crows mesmerized by a shiny bauble, the UCP seem fixated on coal as an economic generator, at the expense of destroying an iconic part of what makes living in Alberta enjoyable and rewarding.

The eastern slopes that Albertans want and need can’t survive deals shrouded in secrecy, an out of step economic ideology and an agenda rife with disingenuous spin, especially on what is or isn’t a mountain-top coal mine. There is a crying need to return to legitimate, evidence-based and un-politicized land use planning.

The stewardship objectives and desires of Albertans for the eastern slopes are still clear after nearly a century — that’s part of our DNA. Albertan’s message is loud and clear — we do not support the squandering of the integrity of the eastern slopes for a pocketful of economic mumbles.

Is the UCP listening? We’ll see.

Lorne Fitch is a biologist, a retired provincial fish and wildlife biologist and a former adjunct professor with the University of Calgary.

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