Dispatch from Alberta's War in the Woods

They call us 'obstructors' for trying to save the forest they named a 'Special Place.'

By Sid Marty 21 Feb 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Poet and author Sid Marty is a fourth generation Albertan who lives in Willow Valley. In 2008, he won the Grant MacEwan Literary Arts Award for his career contributions to the literature of Alberta.

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Feb. 14, 2010 rally against logging of the Castle Special Place forest reserve at Premier Alison Redford's Calgary office at the McDougall Centre. Photo: Stephen Legault.

It was St. Valentine's Day, but the concrete square at Premier Redford's Calgary office offered cold comfort to 150 people, there to rally against clear-cut logging in Alberta's Castle Mountains. It was my turn to speak and I began with a question: "Do you realize that it's against the law for me to stand on this publicly owned land and talk to you today?"

The crowd seemed confused by this gambit, though most of them were aware that some citizens, mostly grey-headed types like myself, had been trying to block logger access to the sublime mountain forests of southwest Alberta. It is a priceless watershed and an area famed for wildlife and rare plants, designated by the government as the Castle Special Place protected area.

I further explained that as our reward for trying to stop that destruction, an executive director with Alberta's oxymoronic Sustainable Resource Development ministry had issued me and my cohorts with an order to stay off all public land in this province.

In 1600 B.C., Emperor Wu of China said, "To protect your rivers, protect your mountains." But that maxim is too avant-garde for the government of Alberta.

"If you try to protect Alberta's mountains," I continued, "they will arrest you and forbid you from setting foot upon them. Well, I'm standing on public land. So if you are a law-abiding citizen, do your duty. Call the cops and have me arrested."

Although three of Calgary's finest were standing near, they declined to take us up on the offer.

Proud 'obstructors'

On Jan. 24, four "obstructors" as Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) styles us -- Tim Grier, Diana Calder, Gordon Petersen and yours truly faced off with an idling bulldozer and fellerbuncher in the forest reserve near Beaver Mines, for a moment of protest Zen. We stared back at the operators, thinking about the events that had brought us to this point, after two weeks of picketing the site. The dude in the tracked fellerbuncher exercised the machine's giant metal jaws, clacking them open and shut with a noise like a sprung bear trap.

We knew the area had been identified as a Special Place by the Alberta government in 1998 as part of a "network of protected areas" as "a major milestone in the preservation of Alberta's natural heritage for future generations." We knew the area is designated "critical wildlife" habitat, yet is part of a mortality sink for grizzly bears traveling up from Montana, where they are classified as an endangered species. In Alberta, grizzlies are listed as "threatened" but Alberta is where Montana bears come to die.

We knew there had been no survey to identify bear dens in the cut block, contrary to SRD's own mandate. We knew that 80 per cent of the local population opposed the logging, and we knew that a delegation of citizens was engaging the premier that very day, in a last ditch effort to get a reprieve for the Castle headwaters.

In fact, a group of local people, ourselves included, had been working for years to get the area protected as a wild land park. The idea had the blessing of a minister of tourism for the project. Eighty thousand people (and counting) had called the premier's office to try and stop the clear cut logging of the Castle, which provides a third of the water input to the Oldman River drainage and the cities of the plains.

Surely the government would not allow SRD to clear cut this vital watershed, when it was so obviously at odds with the PC cabinet's stated position on the Castle?

But we also knew that SRD cared little about any of this. We knew that SRD was determined to log half of the 52 square kilometre license including old growth in these woods and turn whatever was not useable as lumber -- 40 per cent -- into garden mulch and fence posts. You see, the more you damage an area, the less likely it is going to be set aside for a park, and the more likely SRD will maintain control of this piece of its turf.

'What would you do?'

The numerous citizens who oppose this logging, of course, were not there at that moment. There were just four of us on hand, playing chicken with the logging machinery and its operators.

We were the point of the spear.

Three weeks later, at the premier's office on Valentine's Day, I asked the people at the rally:

"What would you have done?

"Would you have stepped aside, let all those folks down and let the destruction begin?

"Or would you have fought for what is right, for what is sustainable, for what is best for Alberta, for the wildlife and the watershed?"

The shouts of approval sounded a bit tentative, I must admit. Nobody wants to tangle with the legal system.

582px version of Beaver Mines Lake in Alberta
Beaver Mines Lake in the Castle Special Place: shores slated for clear-cutting. Photo: Stephen Legault.

SRD may have a legal right to clear-cut, but I would argue they no longer enjoy the social license that goes with it. It's 2012, not 1912, and we cannot support a forestry department that will not give equal weight to all that the forest offers us in terms of recreation, watershed protection and wildlife habitat. Do we really have to quantify water production in the forest, while water levels shrink in our major rivers? High quality raw water is beyond price, of course. But what about its value in industrial applications and agriculture?

If the trees are worth one dollar each to the government in stumpage, (say a quarter-million dollars), I want to know what the forest is worth in terms of enhanced water retention, oxygen production, sequestration of carbon and generation of tourism dollars. Is it worth millions to our economy for these and other services it provides, or more likely, is that measured in billions?

You would think that the free market geniuses of Alberta would at least figure out that trees are worth more to us alive than they are as garden mulch. These are questions we, as activists, will have to answer with hard facts and figures, since SRD is not going to do the studies for us.

And there is another thing we have to do in the future. The people of this province, if they need clean air to breathe and water to drink, are going to have to recognize that a handful of people, many of them grandmas and grandpas, cannot do at their own expense and at their legal peril what battalions of well-paid politicians and bureaucrats are supposed to do every day, which is protect the environment of Alberta and ensure that projects on our public lands are truly sustainable.

We have to turn out at these types of protest actions not by the dozens, but by the thousands, until the current Nexus of Nitwits gets the message that talk-talk-talk while you continue to drill, blast and clear-cut has lost its soothing charm.

Alberta is a spacious and lofty land that deserves the very best from us. It's about time we matched its natural grandeur with some newer and grander ideas.  [Tyee]

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