Humans have been exploiting Alberta’s abundant natural resources for 10,000 years. Indigenous people hunting bison obviously had little effect on ecological integrity, but over time, the eradication of the species by white settlers and the clearing of land for agriculture did. Today, minimizing the effects of the fossil-fuel industry, global warming, and development within national parks are hot-button environmental issues in Alberta.
Oil and Gas Industry
The oil and gas industry is vital to Alberta’s economy, but along with all the money comes a number of environmental issues, none more talked about than the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which are absorbed by the air, and as a result contribute to global warming. Government and industry within Alberta work together closely to reduce emissions, mostly through modern technologies. Traditional techniques such as using sulfur from sour gas wells to make fertilizer are being joined by radical new ideas. Of these, one of the most interesting is the capture of carbon dioxide at its industrial source, from where the emission is compressed and then injected under the ground into depleted oil and gas reservoirs.
The use of alternative, nonpolluting “green power” is increasing within Alberta exponentially. Almost 90 percent of power used by government facilities comes from renewable sources such as the sun and wind, and interest-free loans are offered for municipalities to become energy efficient. On a smaller scale, there are projects such as the one at Cochrane High School, which combines the use of sun and wind to power the buildings. As elsewhere in the world, it is usually only when the ecology of somewhere special is threatened that the public hears about it. Development of an open pit mine at northern Alberta’s McClelland Lake Wetlands, once considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site classification, is one such issue.
Environmental issues within Alberta’s national parks are an ongoing hot topic. On the surface, the commercialism of mountain parks seems to work against the mandate for their existence, but because the parks have grown from what were originally money-making exercises, the situation is unique. It is also important to remember that 100 years ago the parks were home to logging and mining operations and that wardens were directed to “exterminate all those animals which prey upon others.” It wasn’t that long ago that park lakes were stocked with nonnative fish for the pleasure of anglers, and still today wildlife is “managed” to some degree—by relocating troublesome bears and moving elk away from population centers.
The town of Banff, the largest urban center in any national park in the world, is center of much debate about development within Canada’s national park system. The town does have a good reason for its existence—serving the needs of up to 50,000 visitors daily. Along with obvious amenities such as accommodations and restaurants comes needs such as a sewage plant, municipal infrastructure, schools, a hospital, and all the businesses you would expect to find in a midsize town. But you can also park in a multistory car park, go to Starbucks, get a tattoo, buy a bearskin rug, and sleep in a chain motel (obviously I’m not recommending this as an itinerary)—all within a national park. Many visitors only see the commercialism along Banff Avenue, but balancing human-use issues with the protection of the mountain ecosystem is behind decisions such as capping future development, closing the Banff airstrip and buffalo paddock, and restricting the use of mountain bikes on some local trails. Farther afield, the need to protect wildlife has led to speed restrictions and closures on roads passing through critical habitat, access to some areas of the backcountry has been curtailed, ski resorts only offer limited summer activities, and in some cases, such as in Kootenay National Park, accommodations in wildlife corridors have been expropriated.
An interesting human element to the discussion is the “need to reside,” especially since Alberta has four population centers within national parks (two in Banff National Park, and one each in Jasper and Waterton Lakes National Parks). Parks Canada, the federal agency responsible for park management, regulates who may live within a national park. To be eligible, one must have their primary employment or operate a licensed business within the park, but there are many vagrancies. For example, writing a guidebook about the parks is not deemed a need to reside (but being married to someone whose primary employment is within a national park does give the author a need to reside).
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition