Illusion of a Land Ethic in Western Canada

(Note: The following is a slightly condensed version of an article that recently appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine.)

The widely held notion that Canada is taking excellent care of its wild, pristine lands far better than the gluttonous citizens in the United States, is nothing more than a misperception approaching myth. Americans or Yanks as they are often called up north, are frequently verbally assailed by Canadians with the misplaced, disingenuous and perhaps naïve notion that all U.S. citizens are swine when it comes to caring for and preserving quality country while residents of Canada are quite the opposite–valiant, conscientious souls who have none of the blood of the killing of good country on their hands, while we in the States are literally drenched in the stuff. Such is not the case. This stance is at best spurious and possibly created to hide the obvious fact that the western provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon are being plundered at an astonishing rate.

While having a couple of drinks in a bar called The Pit in Dawson City, Yukon last summer a Canadian came up to me and asked where I was from. When I told him he said “You damn Yanks don’t give a damn about your own land. You log it and strip mine it all to hell. Then you come up here to enjoy are country.” Over the years I’ve heard many comments along those lines.

True, there are individuals in Canada who have devoted their lives to preserving good country and there are, as most of us know all too well, greedy bastards tearing apart the last remaining shreds of unspoiled country in the U.S. But fair is fair, and the bottom line is that Canadians should take stock of their own environmental situation before gleefully casting aspersions America’s way.

Forty years of perfecting my personally arcane art of being an inveterate road bum traveling back roads on a skinny budget, fishing malarial bogs, inadvertently canoeing class X whitewater, hiking non-existent trails bound for nowhere and unavoidably staying on top of environmental issues in Canada (perhaps a natural adjunct of a confused life) has provided an ongoing opportunity to see disturbing change in a land of incredible splendor and abundance–one peopled with some truly remarkable, generous and creative individuals. In the last five years these destructive shifts in direction have been seismic, both metaphorically and literally.

From Fort Nelson in northern British Columbia to Rocky Mountain House in central Alberta to the vast Tintina Trench region in the southern Yukon and NWT and over east to Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, the landscape is under siege. The extraction industries are running the show, tearing blasting, sucking and cutting every diamond, gold nugget, drop of oil, chunk of coal and stick of timber they can access. If it’s of value, these industries intend to have it. What’s going down in western Canada makes the devastation being visited on states like Montana, Wyoming and Utah look like carefree walks in halcyon parks. What are obviously horrendous clearcuts or devastating open pit coal mines in the U.S. West are everyday situations in Canada, too. Most of that country’s citizens are loving the action. Provincial campgrounds are filled to the brim with late model pickups tricked out with all the options and pulling expensive fifth wheelers and pricey speedboats and ATVs and jet skis. The Cypress Hills sitting along the Alberta Saskatchewan border and the setting for Wallace Stegner’s book Wolf Willow are now overrun to the extent that during the summer the place resembles a scene from a Chevy Chase “vacation” movie. Housing developments in cities like Calgary and Edmonton stretch for miles with quarter-million dollar and much higher homes numbering in the thousands. All of this comes not only from the jobs provided by these corporations but also from royalties paid by the industry based on the amount of a given mineral extracted from a province. In Alberta this figure exceeds $6 billion annually dollars just for coal. The money is flowing in direct proportion with the abundance of the oil coming from countless wells hammered into the Canadian countryside. The old phrase “a chicken in every pot” has been updated in the northland to “an oil pumpjack in every yard.”

A good example, and there are many, is Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. This used to be a rather sedate town of a few thousand sometimes impoverished souls who enjoyed life on the bluffs above the North Fork of the Saskatchewan River. The residents enjoyed all of the outdoor activities one would expect in an area that rests in the foothills along the east slope of the Canadian Rockies and is surrounded by dense, mature pine forest with countless rivers and streams pouring out onto the prairie. Lakes of the purest water abound as do grizzlies, moose, eagles, deer, wolves, various species of trout, grayling, mountain lions and so on. For years timber has generated decent incomes for many as did motels restaurants and service stations that supplied the occasional tourist and outdoor enthusiast with the basic needs. Most everyone knew everybody else and crime rates were low. The population was perhaps a couple of thousand.

The town, originally founded 150 years ago because of the fur trade and the natural highway provided by Saskatchewan, is now an insane riot of oil rigs, logging trucks, related workers and the destructive craziness that comes from too much money deposited in a local economy way too quickly. Residents are now moving towards surliness, depression and anger caused by these rapid changes to their lifestyle. A recent trip up that way this spring revealed streets, even residential side streets, overrun with trucks of all sizes run helter skelter to the oil-and-gas biz shuffle. Gas stations–service stations are nearly extinct–were nonstop busy nearly 24/7 filling tanks of industry vehicles. Beleaguered locals put on game but grim faces in the wake of this onslaught. A woman at a local bakery said “I don’t even remember what my town used to be. None of us know anyone the way we used to. This place is frantic like Calgary.” The town has more than tripled in population and that doesn’t include the countless oil and gas roustabouts, drilling maintenance crews, surveyors and the like.

What is happening to longtime residents of Rocky Mountain House and countless other towns scattered about the forests, mountains and prairies of western Canada is to be expected wherever extractive industry moves in and shoves locals out of the way. What was once home is now a corporate compound replete with out of control drinking, drugs, prostitution and the ubiquitous grifters plying a variety of hustles and cons–the ever-present tag alongs with this avaricious carnival. The town’s people don’t know what’s happening to them or their land. All that most of them see is the quick money fix that blinds them to the negative and long-term changes of this way of life. The continual boom-and-bust cycle of the West is at play in Canada. Ten, maybe twenty years of feast, then complete collapse and all of the new homes and expensive toys go back to the banks while the oil, coal and timber companies are long gone searching for the next valley to plunder. It’s an old, ugly story that’s been played out in Butte, Montana, Deadwood, South Dakota and in ghost towns with names like Garnet, Pony and Como. Canada’s dancing now.

Millions of hectares (about 2.5 acres) of land in these western provinces are being surveyed, mapped and then exploited by these extraction industries. And production figures in oil and gas, coal and other minerals along with timber are climbing rapidly and in many cases equal or exceed production totals in the U.S. Forest trunk roads that used to wind serenely through dense pine forest and alongside unspoiled rivers along the Rocky Mountain foothills and now bustling muddy or dusty corridors conveying a steady stream of enormous trucks hauling huge machinery.

A couple years ago a friend and I were traveling north from Rocky Mountain House on Forest trunk 743. We wore working on a book about the northern high plains called Coyote Nowhere. The late-June weather was warm but rainy and the dirt roads were now a muddy and treacherous quagmire. Even if there had been no other traffic the drive would have been a sporting proposition. We’d been warned by a forest employee the night before and a campground along the Pembina River to watch out for the steady stream of oil and coal rigs moving up and down these roads. “They don’t stop or even move over for anyone. People are killed all of the time. Trucks, cars campers–all of them sometimes crushed flat like empty beer cans. That’s an extremely dangerous drive your about to undertake.” He wished us luck and then headed off down the road to check on another campsite. At the time I considered his warning a bit extreme, but I was to find out differently. The next morning as we drove north a steady stream of enormous rigs roared past us, the tires on these machines taller than our GMC Suburban. The noise of the engines was deafening as they belched thick black clouds of diesel exhaust. While climbing a sticky hill a semi pulling drilling equipment moved well over to our side of the road just missing us by inches and drenching the Suburban including the windshield in a thick wash of slop. We barely made it to the top of the rise, driving blind, and barely managing to skid over into a slight turnoff. Getting out to collect ourselves and settle frayed nerves, I looked around. On both sides vast open-pit coal mines stretched deep into the ancient pine forest. Tall metal stacks that rose above the trees were crowned by flickering flames of natural gas being burned off at several pumping stations. Oil company signs said “No Trespassing” at the entrance to every side road. In the pits large machinery was scooping up and hauling away coal. Dynamite blasting roared in the distance. Far in the west the lofty crest of the Rockies flickered snow white between swirling openings in the cloud cover.

Twenty years ago when I traveled this road on my way to the then remote mountain town of Grand Cache (now overrun with the same madness as in Rocky Mountain House) I felt like I was in the middle of a primeval forest, that a grizzly or moose could appear from the edge of the trees at any moment. Now the atmosphere was more like a scene of some vast industrial park. Nothing pristine or peaceful about the place remained. The rivers were running muddy along the road and the only wildlife I saw was an occasional raven gliding high above what remained of the forest. This was a vision of desecration that went beyond even the extensive open pit coal operations in southeastern Montana. The devastation continued for 60 miles before we turned off onto another road that soon led past a mammoth coal mine where mountains on the eastern edge of Jasper Park in the Gregg River drainage were being carved down to nothing. The air was filled with the noise of heavy machinery and choking with waves of black dust swirling in miniature tornados as the wind whipped down from the remaining mountains. More than 800 miles north from my home in Livingston, Montana and I felt like I was Detroit.

Half of Canada is covered by either temperate forest (like that found in Montana, Idaho and Washington) or by boreal forest (similar to that found in Siberia). The boreal forest is a 600-hundred-mile-wide band of timberland stretching from approximately 300 miles north of the U.S. border to tree line in the Arctic, and spanning the breadth of the country. Approximately 300 million acres of the country’s forest are managed for timber production. This is an area more than one-and-a-half times the size of Montana. Two-thirds of Canada’s estimated 300,00 wildlife species live in the forest.

The temperate and boreal forests along with the arctic tundra of these four provinces is extremely fragile. I spoke with a biologist at the Tombstone Campground Interpretive Center located on the Yukon’s Dempster Highway. She pointed out that as few as 20 people walking the same line to a distant peak and back again would disturb the vegetation and soils of this boreal environment to the extent that it would take several decades to return to its natural state.

Less than two dozen people treading lightly, not thousands of pieces of machinery the size of houses, thousands more workers and thousands of tons of explosive, all ripping and digging away at some of the last wilderness left on the planet. The following figures give an idea of the magnitude of these extraction processes in Canada.

The total timber harvest in Canada is near eight billion board feet per year up from 2.9 billion in 1950. In the U.S. this figure is around 4.0 billion board feet per year down from 6.0 billion in 1980s. Canada’s forests cover an area nearly three times the size of Europe. This is mainly boreal forest with some temperate forest including temperate rainforest. This represents 10% of the world’s forestry cover. Only 5.5 percent of this forest is under some form of legal protection or constraint related to logging. This is the most productive forest in terms of biomass in the world. Grizzly bears, cougars the Baird Owl, woodland caribou and elk live here. Approximately 10.8 million acres of logged forest lands in Canada (an area more than twice the size of Wales) remain denuded. If present trend continues, all of Canada’s suitable timber base (forest) will be harvested within 30-35 years.

In British Columbia ancient forests are vanishing at the rate of one acre every 70 seconds or 418,000 acres per year an area the size of 190,00 football fields. In the time it takes to watch a 30-minute sitcom on television 26 acres of forest have been leveled. In the past decade an area eight times the size of Connecticut has been clearcut. Companies do not have to bid competitively to log public forests. Fees are typically set at one-fourth to one-third market value. The majority of logging in B.C. is in old growth forest and the Canadian government estimates that the province is over cutting its forest by 20 percent. Clearcutting makes up 80 percent of all logging. In British Columbia it is legal to log smaller salmon streams down to the banks destroying aquatic life and leaving no protections against fine sediment and high temperatures that are lethal to salmon eggs and fry. There is no endangered species legislation to protect wildlife from logging despite the fact that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada now lists 387 species of plants and animals at risk of extinction (eight percent of these species are shared with the U.S.). This is an increase of 20 percent since 1992.

Coal production figures for Canada show a similar situation. Alberta mines 27 million tons. Alberta 40 million. By example Montana, which is destroying its wide open tracts of high plains country, digs out 38.9 million tons. Montana’s coal reserves are 1,600 billion tons. Alberta has 2,900 million tons and is extracting these reserves at a rate that is slightly faster than the Big Sky state and climbing yearly. So for Canadians to say that we Yanks are plundering our countryside at a faster rate than they are is, at best, inaccurate.

In Canada the oil and gas industry invested more than $20 billion in exploration and development in 2000, making it the single largest capital investor in Canada. Oil production is not expected to peak for ten years. British Columbia government officials have asked leaders in Ottawa to lift a decades-old ban on offshore drilling along Canada’s Pacific Coast. Geologists estimate that there could be up to 10 billion barrels of oil and 1.2 billion cubic meters of natural gas in the area.

“We risk enormous damage to British Columbia’s environmental heritage, all for a short-term dollar,” said David Hocking, communications director for the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation.

Within perhaps as little as two decades the ecosystem damage inflicted upon the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories will make what happened in Montana look like a walk in the park. At the present rate most natural resources will be exhausted in Canada within 40 years. Even if Canada was exploiting its natural resources at only one-half the rate of the U.S., which it isn’t, everything would be gone within a century. It appears that while the U.S. is destroying itself natural resource wise, Canada is doing so at an even faster rate.

During a recent trip to the Yukon I pulled over at a wayside that offered a spectacular view of the Kondike River valley and the seemingly endless sweep of mountains rolling north towards the Arctic Circle. The ragged, surreal peaks of The Tombstone Range ghosted in the distance. Looking to my left I noticed a large display sign touting a gold mine that was hidden behind a near range of mountains. Pictures and words graphically showed the huge scope of the operation, and extolled the operation as providing jobs and money for Yukon residents.

Certainly this is true, but what will the real cost to Canadians and all of us be when all is said, blasted and done in the not so distant future?

JOHN HOLT has been called the Hunter Thompson of Montana. He is the author of numerous books, including the gripping novel Hunted, and Coyote Nowhere: In Search of America’s Lost Frontier. He lives in Livingston, Montana and can be reached at: