When and where I was raised in the bush country of Northern Alberta, there was no “environment.” Nature was all around us. It was something we used, argued with, fought, exploited, used and took for granted. We carved our homestead out of bush that had been burned over by a large forest fire several years earlier. We bulldozed and piled the aspen and willows into windrows to be burned. The stumps were turned over by large breaking plows and we worked hard picking roots and rocks so our small equipment could plant a crop of grain to be harvested in the fall for the cash needed to raise a large family. Moose and deer were plentiful and free for the hunt, so we ate them rather than our cows, pigs or chickens that were worth cash. Our spare time was spent on a nearby river where we hunted, fished and picked berries to store for the coming winter months. We used a net to catch many varieties of fish, not understanding that the prime netting areas were also probably prime spawning grounds. We kept all the fish, having no idea that we were keeping the older fish that were just old enough to begin to spawn. During these years the river ran cold and clean. Later, a large pulp mill was built on one of the larger tributaries and the river turned black from the sludge that was pumped from the mill into the river. Froth made it as far as our campsite sixty miles downstream and we could smell the mill waste in the water. Cows even quit drinking the river water. Fish began to die and the survivors were full of PCBs and authorities told us not to eat any that we caught.
We made a few trips each summer to a nearby Provincial Park where we fished for sport but more importantly for the table. Catch limits were very liberal in those years. The lake was large and we never thought that there was any chance that we could fish that lake out. Over time, farms encroached closer to the lake shoreline and the small creeks that drained the surrounding farmland became more and more loaded with chemical fertilizers that farmers applied to grow their crops. Now more algae and plants grew in the lake and as a result, the water warmed. Soon there were times in the summer when the water temperature rose higher than what the fish could live in. Oxygen became depleted and fish died by the tons. It is now a challenge to catch a fish in this beautiful lake.
We logged spruce timber from the large creeks close by to make lumber for sale or use for building our farm buildings. Now there were fewer trees to help contain the rainfall on the hillsides so the water ran off and carried logging debris into the water. Oxygen was used up trying to rot this woody matter and silt covered the gravel were fish needed to spawn.
Cows were also grazed on the hillsides of the creeks but they chewed off the native vegetation and dropped tons of manure into the creek water making it undrinkable. We trapped beaver from the creeks so no water was contained behind their dams. Over time we noticed fewer and fewer ducks and the creeks ran dry over the summer. The little trickle of water that always leaks from the beaver dam was no longer there providing nourishment for thirsty wildlife, so they moved on.
As farmers modernized they became more dependant upon fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Pesticides kill not only pests, but good insects as well. Honey bees, lady bugs and birds by the thousands die off each year. No longer does the song of the meadow lark echo over this farmland as it once did. The great Bald Eagle was just about extinct due to the chemical spray DDT causing their egg shells to be too thin and breaking before chicks could hatch.
A few years ago, oil was discovered in this area of Alberta. Now, there were roads and oil leases carved into the middle of fertile farmland. Pipelines and wove their invisible pathways under the fields and across rivers and streams carrying their liquid burdens to the refineries to be processed and transported to where we all can burn it in our cars and trucks. Natural gas was also found under the land so more roads and pipelines were needed. Flare stacks burned off excess pressure, production and poisons from underground. More people suffer from emphysema, asthma and cancers than ever in history in regions where oil and gas companies produce their liquid gold, however, the link is unproven. Anecdotal evidence is invalid when dealing with large corporations or governmental agencies who, really only have to provide some doubt to any environmental argument to be not guilty. The river pollution was also unprovable because we had no “numbers” from before the mill was put in.
We were too busy and poor in the early years to worry about much other than the day to day survival of our families. We lived within three hundred miles of two world class national parks, Banff and Jasper, but we had never visited. These parks were for the rich people to visit, not for us. We saw pictures in our school library but never considered them too seriously. They were too beautiful for us to visit and too far away. Our “parks” were close by, and more available for the commoners to access. We did not even know anyone who had been to visit the National Parks, unless they were very wealthy or worldly. I was twenty years old and running free when I first saw Jasper National Park. I could not believe what I was seeing. It was difficult to comprehend the beauty of the place. Is it any wonder that it should be saved? As years flowed by, I have had the privilege of visiting many more of the parks in Canada and USA and now understand what they are about and what they yet could be. We do have to admire the foresight of people such as Teddy Roosevelt who proclaimed the first National Park, Yellowstone, breaking trail for many more saved areas. There is no doubt that they are usually beautiful and unique, but why do they stop where they do? Some of the country adjacent to the park boundary is also beautiful and unique. I know some of these areas have timber or mining potential so these properties have been left out to be sacrificed. The thing about parks that I see is their limiting borders for migrating or wandering wildlife. Just beyond the park boundary, the critters are fair game in season. I know hunters who hunt along ancient migration routes of sheep and elk just beyond the park border waiting for trophy animals to wander down from the high country to lower level wintering meadows. The human habitualized animals from the park do not understand the sudden barrage of deadly gunfire from formerly harmless humans.
Many animals such as the large predators like grizzly bears or wolves need huge range to survive within. They can be limited to resources by artificial, manmade boundaries. Denning sites, wintering grounds for prey, mating territories and various food resources often lie just outside protected park boundaries and inside legal hunting zones. Some animals such as grizzly bears or wolverine may require safe corridors linking wilderness parks together so they may wander freely in search of mates. Genealogical diversity is crucial to the long term survival of the grizzly species. Inbred grizzly bears are not healthy or viable.
Here in Western Canada, we now face an even greater threat upon the wilderness and wild lands. Our Athabasca Tar Sands region contains vast quantities of heavy oil which is currently being mined by several large corporations. As these mines expand, the companies would like more markets to send the crude to. China seems to be the most eager to receive the needed oil. In order to get it to China, a large pipeline has been proposed to cross half of Alberta and all the way across British Columbia to the port of Kitimat. This pipeline will cross the most rugged terrain on this continent, over and through mountains, under, across and over rivers, and through some major earthquake zones on the ring of fire of the western shoreline of North America. Then, as if this isn’t enough, the companies propose loading the bunker crude onto the worlds largest oil tankers and sending them through some of the most treacherous waters along the B.C. rugged west coast. Hidden rocks, narrow channels, high winds and waves, huge swell and the high probability of human carelessness and equipment failure all conspire to make another coastal oil spill inevitable. This spill could be ten times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster from which the environment and local communities have still not recovered more than twenty years later.
Environmental impact hearings are just about to start on this project. Our federal government has limited the time line and the numbers of speakers at these hearings in the hopes that it will be approved quickly.
I have driven most of the route of the pipeline and wonder about how a company with dubious pipeline safety records would go about cleaning up a pipeline spill in any place along this pipe’s path. Large parts of the route are granite, muskeg, pristine lakes and huge rivers. In summertime it is some of the prettiest country you can drive through, in winter some of the harshest. Deep snow falls the closer you get to the coast, 10 to 30 feet often pile up in the forests. It can snow 2 feet over night around Terrace and Kitimat. How would you find the oil leak in the first place and then, how would you clean it up under all that snow? How could you boom the oil slick on any of the rivers in winter, let alone on the huge Skeena River? What happens when the expectant earth quake hits the coast line, rupturing the 36 inch oil pipe, then how do you get to the rupture on a broken road or rail lines? Is the risk worth all the money that can be made off this pipeline proposed by a large company with an already dubious record of pipeline maintenance and spill cleanup? Google “Enbridge Pipeline” and read a bit about this proposal and their record.
Now consider passing the oil from the pipeline on to an oil tanker owned by whom? Where is it registered? Where is it insured? Who is responsible for the tanker and its load at any one time? What happens when the tanker can’t make the turn through a couple of the channels in the mouth of Douglas Channel? Who is supposed to clean up the spill? Who is going to pay the bill? What is going to happen to the already threatened Northern Resident Orca population that lives in this area when they are exposed to the crude oil slick from a ruptured oil tanker aground on the rocks? Sea birds, a recovering population of sea otters, humpback, grey, blue and minke whales as well as an already stressed salmon population are all under threat from an oil spill, not to mention the whole sea dynamic of plankton up through the food chain.
Now-a-days, there is an environment, I have learned. We are all part of an environment. A healthy environment is crucial to all of our survival and well being. We all share a part in keeping our environment safe. We are all apart of making sure that the land we use today is in great shape for our grand kids and theirs. Do we have to use it all up today, can there be nothing held in reserve for the future? Are humans the only species that matter? Don’t forget that to all other creatures, we humans are the enemy. We are the critters who are causing so much stress to everybody else. What do we think of when we see a bad human? That is what everything else is thinking of us now!