Fighting for the Foothills: Albertans Speak Up to Protect Headwaters of North Saskatchewan

Alan Ernst and his wife Madeline were world travellers for most of their adult lives. So when they decided to settle down, they gravitated back to one of the most beautiful places they’d ever seen: the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta.

There, the sharp slopes of one of the world’s most dramatic mountain ranges make a sprawling dive to the foothills, which settle into the continent’s vast prairies.

When the Ernsts saw the eastern slopes for the first time, they knew it was going to be their new home.

“We just wanted to do something different,” Alan said. “We had office jobs before and we decided we wanted to live in a more pleasant surrounding than the suburbs of a major city. We wanted to live in the mountains.”


The Ernsts found one of the last undeveloped natural areas in the eastern slopes, in between Jasper and Banff, and built the first eco-tourism lodge in Alberta. The Aurum Lodge was constructed in 1999 and opened to the public in the year 2000.  To this day it is the only dedicated, low-impact eco-tourism lodge in the province.

“I sometimes joke and say we are the antidote to Banff,” Alan laughed.

Their lodge, located along the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan river basin, overlooks Abraham Lake, which glows electric blue with the region’s signature glacial water.

But all is not serene in Alberta’s foothills. The Ernsts say a “free for all” attitude is allowing industry to encroach more and more into the wilderness each year.

“There is very little understanding for conservation here,” Alan said. “It’s all about promoting industry and letting industry do whatever they want. Unfortunately that is resulting in the loss of natural areas. We see industry coming closer every year.”

But this year there’s a rare opportunity to protect the North Saskatchewan river basin while the Alberta government develops a regional plan, called the North Saskatchewan Land Use Framework.

The big question is how the plan balances the needs of people and the environment with industrial development and motorized recreation.

The region, despite being popular for recreation, is relatively undisturbed, says Sean Nichols, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“It tends to be low-impact recreation,” he said. “And we’re really trying to get those people, who live in and use the area, involved in the land use framework planning process.”

Abraham Lake in fall. "This image shows the beauty of an area which deserves to be protected in its current state," Alan Ernst said. Photo by Alan Ernst.

The Alberta Wilderness Association has partnered with Mountain Equipment Co-op to help bring the voices of outdoor enthusiasts into the process.

A camper, hiker or kayaker might be “one of the strongest voices that can be a part of the planning process,” Nichols said.

Previous land use planning processes have been dominated by municipal, industrial or agricultural voices.

“We wanted people who actually recreate and live in these areas to get involved in the process,” Nichols said.

“For a long time, Alberta has been of a Wild West mentality: few people and lots of land and resources,” Nichols said. But as populations in the province grow and competition over resources increases, that’s beginning to change.

We’ve got more people, fewer resources and land to support those people,” he said.

“We’re at a stage where the wild frontier mentality isn’t working.”

With a variety of demands on the land base, officials are now moving into a new mindset of developing integrated land use frameworks that take into account not just residential, recreational or industrial needs, but also the needs and limits of the ecosystem itself.

“We’re in a place where Alberta, maybe for the first time, is ready to make those tradeoffs,” Nichols said. “At this stage, we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Four Decades of Attempts to Protect the North Saskatchewan's Headwaters

Nichols’ colleague Vivian Pharis, a director of the Alberta Wilderness Association, has been involved in efforts to protect the eastern slopes region since the 1970s.

“It’s the most beautiful example of pristine eastern slopes Rockies out into the foothills,” Pharis said. “Our national parks don’t take in much foothill land so Alberta has protected almost nothing within its two foothills regions.”

Abraham Lake is Alberta's longest man-made lake at 33 kilometres. It formed after the Bighorn Dam was constructed on the North Saskatchewan in 1972. The area "would be an ideal candidate for a Provincial Park which would provide permanent protection," Alan Ernst said. Photo by Alan Ernst.

The region has nearly achieved permanent protection twice, before the opportunity slipped away.

“What most people don’t know is that in 1986 the government almost had this whole headwaters area protected,” Pharis said. “Prior to that most of these lands in the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan were part of the national parks system.”

A lack of public concern and an absence of government initiative allowed the region’s protected status to remain unlegislated, Pharis explained, and eventually vast areas were removed from within park borders, as boundaries designating Banff and Jasper National Parks were constricted.

Each time a policy plan has made its way into document form, Pharis said, it fails to become law, leading to incremental changes that threaten the integrity of the entire ecosystem.

Although the mid-80s showed some promise, with a minister keen on conservation, things eventually “fell apart,” Pharis said, and within a few years “the oil and gas activity, forestry, etcetera were just putting so much pressure on the province, they left land use planning altogether.”

Now, through the regional land use planning process, there’s an opportunity to protect 90 per cent of the North Saskatchewan headwaters.

“It’s essentially a no-brainer to protect,” Pharis said. “It would be such a boon to Alberta and this river system if those headwater did get protection under this plan.”

An advisory council could make recommendations to the province for land use plans in the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan river basin as early as this fall.

North Saskatchewan Headwaters Crucial For Drinking Water, Wildlife Survival

For Sarah Cox, senior conservation program manager with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, the land use plan has the unique opportunity to not only protect one of the province’s most significant sources of drinking water, but to protect vast wildlife range from human disturbance, saving it for generations to come.

The North Saskatchewan River in the Kootenay Plains. Photo by Alan Ernst.

“First and foremost, the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan should protect the extensive headwaters that supply cities like Edmonton with drinking water,” she said. But it should also include the means to conserve “wildlife corridors that allow grizzly bears and other wide-ranging species to move freely from one protected area to another.”

Cox notes that the region has already lost its native herds of woodland caribou. “We don’t want to lose any more species,” she said.

According to the Alberta government’s own data, she said, there are 45 at-risk species in the North Saskatchewan planning region, including Canada lynx, bull trout and the trumpeter swan. 

The land use plan could protect the least disturbed parts of the area from motorized vehicles and forestry, she said.

“People who live in the region love to recreate in the mountains. They would like to see protective measures in place so that their children and grandchildren will be able to experience the wilderness and catch a glimpse of the remarkable wildlife that draws people from all over the world to this area.”  

Eco-Tourism Provides Economic Opportunity for Alberta

For the Ernsts, protecting the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan offers more than an ecological opportunity — it has the potential to provide a new vision for the Albertan economy.

Saskatchewan Glacier and Lake in Banff National Park. Photo by Alan Ernst.

“When you look around along the North Saskatchewan river where we live it is still pretty much the way it was 100 or 200 years ago,” Alan said. “It is still a very natural area.”

“We have high density of wildlife which is important for biodiversity and also for potential tourism development. I think keeping an area like this the way it is has as much economic importance and benefit as developing it,” he said.

Continuing to attract tourists from all over the world to the Rocky Mountain region “will require careful land use planning,” Alan said.

He thinks previous land use plans have favoured industry, rather than considering other low-impact uses of the land.

“I am hoping that this will be different,” he said, “but I fear it will be more of the same.”

For Sean Nichols from the Alberta Wilderness Association, this is the perfect time for Albertans to get involved with the North Saskatchewan land use plan.

Although the Alberta government won’t officially seek public comments until a first draft for the plan is put on the table, you can register your interest through Mountain Equipment Co-op’s Homewaters campaign today and be kept in the loop on chances to comment.

This story was made possible through support from Mountain Equipment Co-op as part of its Homewaters campaign, which is dedicated to preserving Canada’s fresh water from coast to coast.

Image Credits: Top: Aurum Lodge overlooking Abraham Lake. All photos by Alan Ernst. 

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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