On January 24, 2012, the Stop Castle Logging protest had been underway for 13 days in temperatures down to −35 degrees and a wind-chill reaching −45. Alberta Forest Service (AFS) had served official notice that we were trespassers on our own public lands and ordered us gone. I felt the frost biting through the orthopaedic brace on my worn-out knee, and pulled my parka hood up over my tingling ears. We paced up and down the frozen skin of Highway 774, shivering, waving placards reading “They Get the Pines, We Get the Fines” at passing cars bound for the Castle Mountain resort. Most drivers honked in support. Polls showed 80 per cent of the locals felt watershed protection trumps logging and even recreation in the Castle.
The news media kept showing up, hoping we would get arrested on camera, and Premier Alison Redford was deluged with emails in support of us. Our delegates were meeting with her that day in Lethbridge, pleading for a reprieve. Surely the department of Sustainable Resource Development would not approve clear-cutting this vital watershed, when it was so obviously at odds with public sentiment. But SRD’s Alberta Forest Service cared little for sentiment, ignoring even Alberta Fish and Wildlife’s priorities in the Castle.
Ironically, the cutblock was part of Alberta’s Grizzly Bear Core Conservation Area. An SRD biologist was conducting an ongoing survey of bear dens in the cutblock, so how could the department justify logging her study area? I’m told that when challenged on this, a forest officer responded, “No problem. The feller buncher operators are trained to identify bear dens so as to avoid them.” I must be crazy, because this notion of managing a threatened species via feller buncher dude did not comfort me. No, AFS was determined that Spray Lake Sawmills would log half of the 52 km2 licence in these woods in the next three years, some 4,737 truckloads. Whatever was not useable as lumber—40 per cent—would go to garden mulch and fence posts.
Three greybeards and a lady of a certain age—four “obstructors” as AFS styled us—huddled around a hot camp stove in a battered outfitter tent, sipping cups of cowboy coffee. As it happened, Gordon Petersen, Tim Grier, Diana Calder and I were the only bodies on hand when Spray Lake employees arrived to begin the logging operation that the protest action had delayed. We tumbled out and trudged through the snow to confront a bulldozer and a feller buncher operator for a moment of protest Zen while a forest officer, camera deployed, circled us demanding to know, “Are you going to leave the area? You guys are trespassing here.”
We stared back at the operators, and I felt the hair rise on my neck, thinking, “Shit, this is it, the crux, the moment that had to happen.” A diesel engine roared as the operator in the bubble of the Caterpillar feller buncher deployed a set of giant metal jaws on a long hydraulic arm, opening and shutting them with a noise like a gigantic sprung bear trap. I thought, “This here’s Alberta, where men are men and trees are nervous.” We eyed him and his machine with trepidation. He seemed sane and calm; that was reassuring (we probably looked crazy as hell to him). His iron steed would be a serious contender in a boxing match. Nearby, the bulldozer also rumbled defiance, predicting doom to trees and tree huggers. Such machines cost a fortune, and at one point the operator worried out loud they might be vandalized. “Don’t worry,” Petersen assured him, “We’ll keep an eye on them for you.”
We marched forward. The forest officer trunched along in our wake like an irritated bear. Then came the inevitable arrests.
It was clear to us that day that if the logging began, all appeals would be moot. We guys hesitated, but Calder, a local businesswoman, made the call. She shouldered her sign, turned and waded down through the deep snow to stand right in front of the startled operator in his plexiglas cockpit. Tim and I exchanged looks: Diana had just made up our minds for us. So we marched forward to join her, watched by Petersen. As our media guy, he could not afford to be arrested. The forest officer trunched along in our wake like an irritated bear. Spray Lake, not wishing to martyr us, shut down the deafening machines and by noon the officers and the operators had left the area. But like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, their looks said, “We’ll be back.”
Then came the inevitable arrests. On February 1, Inspector McGeough and Corporal Gopp came out from Lethbridge to enforce a court order barring us from the lease effective at 8 a.m. They’d brought a peace offering of Tim Hortons coffee and muffins for everyone, which they spread out on the hood of their squad car. Things got even more Canadian when McGeough complimented the protesters on their good behaviour. Jim Palmer, a burly local artist clad in a fur hat with ear flaps and quilted Carhartt coveralls straight out of a Fargo episode, asked politely: “For those of us who decide to be arrested, where do we line up?” In the end, Mike Judd, Reynold Reimer, Jim Palmer and the late Richard Collier refused to leave. The arrest itself, as Petersen remembers it, was like the Monty Python movie Life of Brian. “’oo’s for the crucifixion? Are you for the crucifixion? Right, please line up on the left.”
Judd and his crew went to Pincher Creek jail that day, were locked up awhile for identification, and then were released. No good deed goes unpunished, and as our reward for trying to stop the destruction of the Castle Special Place, the oxymoronic Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development issued our group—Judd, Petersen, Calder, Grier, Marty and persons unknown, including John Doe and his wife Jane Doe—with an order to stay off all public land in this province indefinitely. Public land, our lawyer later advised, includes everything from provincial parks to government buildings. The case went to court and eventually the government allowed its absurd order to lapse, much to my relief. I was due for major surgery, and hospitals are also public land in Alberta.
Once part of Waterton Lakes National Park, the Castle–Carbondale area of the Oldman River watershed is the most biologically and botanically diverse area in Alberta. But the gradual ruining of this ecological wonder does not trouble the forest service, whose sole mandate as manager here is to generate wood fibre and fight forest fires that threaten that resource. Thanks to Alberta’s antediluvian doctrine of “multiple use,” in which everyone can basically be everywhere doing everything all the time, the area has been multi-abused by seismic exploration, clear-cut logging, gas well drilling and motorized recreation. Basically, industry (including logging) slices and dices the land base with roads and access trails on weekdays, then quads and dirt bikes come in on the weekend to finish off the wounded.
This has produced fragmentation of habitat needed by threatened species such as grizzly bears as well as endangered populations of trout. The motorized set use the 1,283 km of trails to penetrate nooks and crannies of the area, displacing wildlife and hikers from their path. Runoff from logging roads and quad trails produces sediment which destroys endangered trout spawning areas downstream. The Hon. Ty Lund, a former minister of the environment and AFS boss, nicely summed up Alberta’s Earth Last attitude years ago, describing protected land as “sterilized.”
Conservationists, led primarily by the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition, have volunteered huge amounts of time and effort for 40-plus years to create a park in the Castle. Park status would protect not only wildlife but the watershed that supplies 30 per cent of the raw water needed downstream in Lethbridge and far beyond. Several times the goal of protection danced close, then slipped out of our grasp.
Civil disobedience isn’t common in Alberta; we’re a conformist society, easily embarrassed by protestors “making a scene”
In 1993 the Natural Resources Conservation Board recommended park-like protection for the area. An advisory group was appointed; three members, favouring industry and motorized recreation, met with minister Lund and the recommendation was rescinded. Protecting mountains to protect our water was just too avant-garde for our PC politicians. I wonder if they had even read Alberta’s Policy for Resource Management of the Eastern Slopes (1984), which declares “…the highest priority in the overall management of the Eastern Slopes is placed on watershed management.”
In 1998 the Castle was listed under Alberta’s Special Places program. The appointed advisory committee favoured forestry and opposed park status. Castle was designated a FLUZ (Forest Land Use Zone), to manage motorized access. Lack of law enforcement allowed quadders and dirt bikers to create hundreds of additional illegal trails and entry points.
In 2005–06 Spray Lake Sawmills obtained logging rights to the Castle forests, now part of the C5 Forest Management Plan. A C5 citizen advisory committee pointed out that the plan needed more rigorous environmental and cumulative effects studies. Watershed management was supposed to be the priority, yet our rivers continued to threaten us with spring floods and showed decreasing summer flows year after year. The plan did not adequately address water quality issues or economic values other than wood fibre. Nonetheless the plan was approved with few changes.
In 2007, during the Castle Special Place Citizens’ Initiative, citizens volunteered countless hours over 18 months on a proposal to protect 99 per cent of the Castle as a Wildland Park. The result? No change of course from the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development.
In 2012 word spread that Spray Lake would not only log the area, but do so near two beloved places, Beaver Mines Lake and Castle Falls. It seemed like a stick in the eye from AFS, a message saying, “We don’t care what you think, and get the hell out of our way.”
On January 11 some of my neighbours set up a protest camp at the start point of the designated cutblock. SRD ordered them to remove it. This stirred up more defiance, and on the 22nd, 150 defenders of the Castle rallied and made plans for a protest action at the site.
Acts of civil disobedience are not common in Alberta; we’ve been a conformist, deferential society for the most part, easily embarrassed by protesters “making a scene.” Also, post-Wiebo Ludwig, activists are wary of a government inclined to slap the libel of “eco-terrorist” on any citizen that dares put “earth first.” For a naturalist, this business-as-screw-you-all attitude incurs not just feelings of impotence and anger, but a great sadness. The forces of dullness and blight have had their way with the sublime Castle backcountry, precluding anyone with eardrums and a love of wilderness from going for a walk in our publicly owned commons.
We even have a name for this condition. It’s called “solastalgia,” a term coined by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003. It’s a form of psychic or existential distress caused by changes in one’s local environment that are “exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process.” I’ve found that a dose of civil disobedience offers relief from this affliction.
But our protest ended in arrests. We had lost the battle, or so we thought.
That summer, SRD’s favoured clients would go on churning up old logging roads, gas well access roads and seismic lines with quads and dirt bikes, filling the air with gasoline fumes and engine noise. They drove the conservation officers in BC nuts with their illegal forays over Middle Kootenay Pass, which they are banned from using, into the Flathead Valley. A local group, the Crowsnest Quad Squad, tries hard to set responsible standards for use and acts as a good steward, packing out garbage left by others and maintaining bridges and trails. But their efforts are undermined by those whose attitude seems to be “Let’s go down to the Castle and trash it.” Random camping is another privilege sometimes abused, with folks parking giant RVs on public land for months at a time, free of charge. Some have even built themselves insulated add-ons, woodsheds, an outhouse—even a yurt (near the Castle Mountain ski resort).
In 2012, however, the government startled us by suspending logging pending completion of the South Saskatchewan Land Use Framework document. In 2014, under this framework, the bare rock above treeline was to become a provincial wildland park—great for rock climbers but of no use to bears and fish.
Then came the thunderbolt moment in 2015, when it seemed our dream had come true. The new NDP government announced that the whole area, some 1,040 km2, was to be protected in two parts as a provincial park and provincial wildland park. The clear-cutters were out; no new industry would be allowed in. Existing industry and cattle grazers would continue as before.
Our chorus of praise soon faded when it was announced that motorized recreation would be allowed to continue in the area—a dangerous precedent, since quadding isn’t allowed in our other provincial parks and most wildland parks.
In 2015 a Praxis survey showed that, given a clear choice, 86 per cent of Albertans prefer non-motorized recreation in wilderness areas. For years, due to official mismanagement, the motorized minority has been allowed to set the agenda for recreation in our forest reserves. Why on earth in this era of climate change, diminishing water resources, devastated and disappeared species and soaring healthcare costs should this invasive form of recreation overrule the will of the majority on our public lands?
Ultimately, the fight for the Castle watershed has scored only a partial victory for conservation. It is clear that if the people of this province want wilderness for the soul and responsible management of our watersheds, they may have to turn out at protest actions not by the dozens but by the thousands. In Alberta we have only to gaze westward to see our mountains rising up to greet us. They have always called out to the best in us; now they challenge us to match their grandeur with some newer and grander ideas.
Sid Marty writes on natural history and western life and culture. He has published five books of non-fiction and three of poetry.