The economy of western Canada  has always been closely tied to the land—based first on the fur trade, followed by fishing and forestry in British Columbia  and agriculture and oil in Alberta . The two western provinces account for one third of Canada’s economic output. As a result of its vast natural resources, Alberta leads the way with a GDP of $260 billion.
Alberta lies above an immense basin of porous rock containing abundant deposits of oil, natural gas, and coal. The oil in Alberta occurs in three forms: crude oil, heavy oil, and oil sands. Most is refined for use as gasoline for cars, diesel for trucks, and heating fuel for homes. As technology improves and prices prove extraction to be economically viable, the oil sands of northern Alberta are playing an increasingly important role in meeting world energy demands. The Athabasca Oil Sands, near Fort McMurray , are the world’s largest such deposit, with an estimated 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Natural gas was first discovered in southeast Alberta in 1883, but it wasn’t seen as a viable source of energy until 1900. Canada has always had more gas than it can use (currently, proven reserves stand at two trillion cubic feet), and 70 percent is exported via pipelines to other provinces and the United States. Gas is mostly used for home heating but is also a source material for the petrochemical industry.
Western Canada’s first coal mine began operations on Vancouver Island  in the 1850s, followed by numerous others across British Columbia  and Alberta. Coal was first used to heat homes and provide fuel for steam locomotives, but oil took over those duties in the early 1950s. The industry was revived in the 1960s with the advent of coal-fired electric power plants. This market has since broadened, and today coal is British Columbia’s most important mineral export, worth $1 billion annually. Alberta mines more coal, but the value is less.
British Columbia] is a mineral-rich province, and historically mining has been an important part of the economy. Today, the province is home to 26 major mines and three mineral processing plants that produce $3.6 billion worth of exports. In the Northwest Territories , mining has always been a mainstay of the economy. Currently, eight mines produce $1 billion worth of minerals annually, principally zinc, gold, and diamonds. The latter is particularly high profile, with the territories’ four mines responsible for 10 percent of the total value of diamonds extracted worldwide. The website www.certifiedarcticdiamond.com  is filled with interesting information on the local industry.
Almost two thirds of British Columbia—some 60 million hectares (148 million acres)—is forested, primarily in coniferous softwood (fir, hemlock, spruce, and pine). These forests provide about half Canada’s marketable wood and about 25 percent of the North American inventory. Along the coast the hemlock species is dominant; in the interior are forests of spruce and lodgepole pine. Douglas fir, balsam, and western red cedar are the other most valuable commercial trees. The provincial government owns 94 percent of the forestland, private companies own 5 percent, and the national government owns the remaining 1 percent. Private companies log much of the provincially owned forest under license from the government. Around 75 million cubic meters of lumber are harvested annually, generating $10 billion in exports (more than all other industries combined). Although over half of Alberta is forested, the industry constitutes a tiny percentage of the total economic output, mainly because of the slow regrowth rate of northern forests.
Although oil and gas form the backbone of Alberta ’s economy, farms and ranches still dominate the landscape. More than 20 million hectares (49.2 million acres) are used for agriculture, half of which is cultivated—a back-breaking job that was started when the first homesteaders moved west. Alberta produces about 20 percent of Canada’s total agricultural output, directly employing 50,000 people in the process. The largest portion of the province’s $4.5 billion annual farm income comes from cattle ($1.4 billion). Alberta has four million head of beef cattle—just under half of Canada’s total—as well as 140,000 dairy cows. The largest crop is wheat, used mainly for bread and pasta. Barley, used for feeding livestock and making beer, accounts for more than $500 million in annual revenues.
The agricultural facts and figures from British Columbia  are very different for a single reason—only 4 percent of this mountainous province is arable, and of this, just 25 percent of the land is regarded as prime for agriculture. Nevertheless, agriculture is an important part of the provincial economy: 19,000 farms growing 200 different crops contribute $1.5 billion annually to the economic pie. The most valuable sector of the industry is dairy farming, with 72,000 dairy cows contributing around $350 million to the provincial economy. The best land for dairy cattle is found in the lower Fraser Valley . Almost all of British Columbia’s fruit crops are grown in the Okanagan Valley; apples are the best-known produce, but a burgeoning viticulture industry produces grapes in more than 150 vineyards. The province holds around 600,000 beef cattle, including 20,000 run on Canada’s largest ranch, the 200,000-hectare (494,000-acre) Douglas Lake Ranch.
Commercial fishing, one of British Columbia’s principal industries, is worth $500 million annually and comes almost entirely from species that inhabit tidal waters. The province has 6,000 registered fishing boats and 600 fish farms. The industry concentrates on salmon (60 percent of total fishing revenues come from six species of salmon): Boats harvest the five species indigenous to the Pacific Ocean, and the aquaculture industry revolves around Atlantic salmon, which is more suited to farming. Other species harvested include herring, halibut, cod, sole, and a variety of shellfish, such as crabs. Canned and fresh fish are exported to markets all over the world—the province is considered the most productive fishing region in Canada. Japan is the largest export market, followed by Europe and the United States.
Tourism is the second most important industry to the economies of each jurisdiction in western Canada, but it is the largest employer, employing over 200,000 people in British Columbia  and Alberta  combined. This segment continues to grow, as more and more people become aware of western Canada’s outstanding scenery; its numerous national, provincial, historic, and regional parks; and the bountiful outdoor recreation activities available year-round. British Columbia reports 48 million annual “visitor nights” (the number of visitors multiplied by the number of nights they stayed within British Columbia), while Alberta comes up with a figure of 20 million (a figure that counts every visitor only once, but includes intraprovincial travel). The largest number of visitors comes from other provinces.
Both provinces report more than 1,000,000 visitors from the United States, while the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, and Australia also contribute significant numbers. Tourism British Columbia promotes Canada’s westernmost province to the world, while Travel Alberta, a branch of the government’s Department of Economic Development, markets that province. North of the 60th parallel, NWT Arctic Tourism and Tour Yukon are the government departments responsible for marketing the two territories.