Chris Pecora

Letter From the Future

How conservation jobs saved Alberta.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

I just got back from one of the best summers of my life, working in the Alberta Climate Conservation Corps, so I’m writing to thank you for what you did, way back in the early 2020s, to make this possible. I remember you telling me about the mood of despair back then. It’s hard to imagine that now. Our end-of-season party was full of hope and joy. And it’s all thanks to you.

I thought you might like the following extract from an essay I did for school last year. It describes the gift your generation gave mine:

By 2022, things looked grim. Alberta’s oil-dependent economy was on life-support as carbon fuels fell out of favour. A pandemic, lasting several years, had also undermined the economy and deepened divisions in society. Recurring news about extreme weather events driven by climate change were even more demoralizing.

But something remarkable began to happen. Having lost patience with an out of touch government, a grassroots movement coalesced around the need finally to confront the province’s environmental problems head on. The movement united Indigenous communities, rural communities and urbanites in common cause: a future worth wanting. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a government decision to open up the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains to coal mining, just as a growing drought was beginning to threaten the province’s economy by reducing water supplies that originate in those same Eastern Slopes.

Frustrated opposition to such bone-headedness led, in 2023, to the election of a whole new government with a strong mandate for positive change. Responding to the public mood, that government banned new coal mines and finally started to address the widespread and unnecessary damage that other industries and human activities had been causing.

They started by reforming forestry. New rules required companies to protect forest soils by operating only when the ground was frozen, and to selectively remove no more than 60 per cent of the trees in a given stand so as to retain a living canopy. Clear-cutting was banned. Monitoring already shows that the modified forests trap more winter snow and the protected snowpacks are improving groundwater recharge.

Students worked together every summer in the woods repairing damage. They revegetated sites and fixed eroded stream banks.

Older logging areas still needed restoration, though, because ill-advised earlier forest policies had put wood supply ahead of water security. The Eastern Slopes were also riddled with roads and old oil and gas infrastructure, all contributing to rapid water runoff and erosion. So the government created an Alberta Climate Conservation Corps. It employed post-secondary students every summer to work in the woods repairing that damage. Year after year, young Albertans worked together to revegetate sites, repair eroding stream banks and even transplant dam-building beavers back into headwater valleys.

For repairs needing heavy equipment, the government contracted companies that had previously worked mostly in the oil patch. That not only protected jobs but changed their focus from land exploitation to land restoration.

All this work, of course, required money. The government instituted a logical solution: a climate conservation surcharge added to everyone’s water bill. It only increased residential water bills by a dollar a month, and agricultural and industrial ones by 5 per cent, but it generated tens of millions of dollars for work that improves water security.

The new government also started to pay landowners for environmental conservation. Farmers and ranchers can now stabilize and improve their incomes by earning money not just for crops but also by providing habitat for endangered species, restoring and protecting wetlands and increasing carbon sequestration through grassland and forest restoration.

Again, that costs money. And again the government found sensible ways to fund it: a carbon levy that increases annually, surcharges on gas-powered vehicles, new taxes on pesticides and a modest tax increase on large corporations.

Half a century later, the changes are inspiring. Once-vanishing species like the burrowing owl, bull trout and bank swallow are out of danger. Despite the ongoing climate challenge, we see a small but important increase in water supply from rivers draining from the Eastern Slopes and less severe spring floods. And so many young adults, having worked together in the ACCC to restore our headwaters region, are now motivated to collaborate in creating even more solutions in their communities. Alberta not only hums with optimism but is again the diverse and beautiful place it was meant to be.

Grandma and Grandpa, my profound thanks for your decisions to reject despair, reject politicians who offered only old non-solutions, and enable the future my generation is now living. You made Alberta possible again.

Kevin Van Tighem’s Wild Roses Are Worth It: Reimagining the Alberta Advantage was published in spring 2021 by RMB.

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