Partnering to Protect the Eastern Slopes of Alberta's Rocky Mountains
February 23, 2023
Kat Graves, Communications Manager
It was late on a Friday afternoon in May of 2020, when Katie Morrison — then Director of Conservation at the Southern Alberta Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society — received an email with a news release from the Government of Alberta. The release announced the rescission of the 1976 Coal Policy and was accompanied by a single line of text from a colleague: “Should we be concerned?”
“My stomach dropped and I won’t repeat the words that left my mouth, but I think they startled the birds in the backyard,” Morrison — now Executive Director of CPAWS Southern Alberta — quipped.
And, while the cancellation of a decades-old policy might not seem like sufficient cause to elicit such a colourful response, Morrison was familiar enough with the environmental implications of coal mining to know that the decision could have devastating consequences for Alberta’s lands, water and wildlife.
Since its creation in the latter half of the twentieth century, the Coal Policy had restricted open-pit mining and exploration in some of the most important and sensitive regions of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Indeed, the area that would be most impacted by the rescission covered a whopping 1.5 million hectares of land that was not only the source of drinking water to numerous downstream communities in Alberta and across the prairie provinces, but also critical habitat for species like grizzly bear, elk, and native trout.
The “gut-punch” of a decision became official on June 1, 2020. It was made without any public consultation or opportunity for input from citizens. Curiously, it came hot on the heels of another controversial government move in March of that same year — the elimination of legislative protection for 175 provincial parks and recreation areas.
Collectively, these parks represented some of the most accessible locations for both residents and visitors to safely and sustainably experience Alberta’s rugged natural beauty and included approximately 4,500 publicly maintained campsites and related infrastructure supporting outdoor recreation and tourism. Whether by coincidence or design, 60 of these parks were now within areas open to coal mining.
It was later revealed through corporate investment documents that while the cancellation of the Coal Policy might have taken Morrison, her colleagues, and the Alberta public by surprise, coal companies had been in conversation with the provincial government and were aware the policy would be rescinded for at least seven months prior to the announcement.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that in the days following the announcement, Australian coal companies swooped in, submitting a wave of exploration applications that were promptly, perfunctorily approved. In what felt like the “blink of an eye” to Morrison — and others left similarly poleaxed by the decision — hundreds of kilometres of roads were soon approved for construction, along with dozens of test drill-pits.
As permits and bulldozers rolled in with unforgiving alacrity, two regions in the province proved to be at the greatest risk for new coal mine development: Livingstone and Bighorn.
Nestled in the southwest corner of the province, Livingstone is well known as the heart of Alberta’s ranching country. Driving south down the Cowboy Trail (Highway 22), the snowy peaks of the Livingstone Range rise up to the west, standing guard over rare and fragile native grasslands and cold mountain streams. These mountains, foothills and prairies are steeped in history and beloved by anglers, hunters, outfitters and agriculturalists alike.
Further north lies Bighorn, a region that provides drinking water to over 1.4 million people, including Alberta’s capital city, Edmonton. Prime habitat for grizzly bears, wolverines, bighorn sheep, and bull trout, as well as whitebark and limber pine, Bighorn is arguably as beautiful and remarkable a landscape as Banff and Jasper National Parks — albeit a better kept secret. A recreationalist Mecca, it plays host to hikers, campers, climbers, horse-back riders, hunters and anglers.
While land-use pressures in these areas had grown in recent years, neither were regions that Morrison would ever have foreseen being opened to industrial resource extraction on the scale now unfolding. “After exploration began, it took a long time before I could bring myself to return to these places,” she admits. “And when I did, it was as devastating as I expected.”
“After exploration began, it took a long time before I could bring myself to return to these places. And when I did, it was as devastating as I expected.”
Gated roads threatened against trespassing, roads crisscrossed haphazardly up de-treed mountainsides, and test pits scarred the once wild, untouched topography. The coal companies had moved in.
“Later that fall as I sat atop a ridge east of a proposed mine, the wind almost knocking me over, I tried to imagine what the landscape would look like if we failed to protect the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains by banning new mine exploration and development. I imagined how that wind, now so cold and fresh, would be filled with coal dust. The thought left me with a deep, sinking feeling — but, equally, the energy to fight for the spectacular landscape before me.”
Morrison, who has worked in the environmental sector for more than twenty years, says that if there’s one thing she’s learned along the way, however, it’s that “Conservation is collaboration — nothing is done alone.”
When CPAWS Southern Alberta began the nearly two-year fight against coal, the organization engaged with Albertans across the province, and from all walks of life. Together with landowners, ranchers, grassroots Indigenous groups, anglers, hunters, recreationalists, scientists, municipalities, lawyers and economists, Morrison and CPAWS successfully pushed back against the province’s decision — and, in March of 2022, the 1976 Coal Policy was finally reinstated.
Morrison is quick to emphasize that “This wouldn’t have been possible without Patagonia. Through the Environmental Grants program, we had the resources to raise awareness, connect diverse interest groups, and support public advocacy to pursue our common goal of protecting and preserving Alberta’s Rockies.”
“We worked closely with the Elements Patagonia store in Calgary, too,” she adds, “They were instrumental in facilitating this grant and in deepening our relationships with the outdoor recreation community. It’s all about partnerships.”
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Maggie Geis, the Marketing Manager for Elements, Western Canada’s leading Patagonia dealer including the Patagonia Calgary and Patagonia Banff stores, agrees. “Our relationship with CPAWS Southern has always felt very synergistic based on a shared appreciation for and allegiance to people and planet. For over fifty years, CPAWS has been at the forefront of conservation in Alberta, and we knew this was a campaign that we wanted to support — demanding more from industry and government, especially amidst the backdrop of the climate crisis, is how we maintain our social license to operate at Elements.”
What’s more, Geis adds, “So many of the parks, wilderness, protected areas and public lands that CPAWS Southern Alberta fights for, and activates the community to mobilize behind, are the same places that we, and our customers, like to recreate. We feel proud to support the organization, because we know with certainty that everyone stands to gain from a healthy, wild Alberta.”
To that end, CPAWS Southern Alberta and Elements came together again this past December to celebrate the work that’s been done — but also to remind Albertans that now is not the time to stop.
“We’ve come this far, but there’s further yet to go,” Morrison reminds us. “When the Coal Policy was reinstated, and all new exploration and mine development put on hold pending land-use planning — with the exception of 4 ‘advanced’ projects — it was a huge step forward from where we’d been. Unfortunately, it really just kicked the decision down the road. We need a new, binding policy or legislation that permanently protects these incredible, irreplaceable landscapes across the entirety of Alberta's Rocky Mountains.”