Living with the Land

Conservation transcends partisan divides

By Kevin Van Tighem

Almost 50 species of wildlife are considered at risk in Alberta. Some formerly common species such as the burrowing owl and sage grouse thrived here for millennia but are on course to be wiped out within this decade. Every population of caribou in northern and western Alberta is in trouble. Even barn swallows, once seen everywhere, are now classed as a species of concern.

If that weren’t evidence enough that nature is under siege, a Global Forest Watch report released last winter showed that almost two-thirds of the Alberta landscape is fragmented by roads, cultivation and development to the point of displacing wildlife. That’s an area of 410,000 km2, three times the size of England. The prairie region has fared worst: Only 12 per cent remains capable of sustaining native wildlife. Wetlands are vanishing—up to 70 per cent are gone already—and watersheds are so stressed that the Alberta government no longer issues new water-use licences in the Oldman and Bow River watersheds.

Alberta’s economic prosperity has been achieved, to a large degree, at the expense of nature. This is indeed ironic, considering how many Albertans profess to love wildlife and the outdoors. If this province’s natural diversity, wildlife, lakes, streams and clean air are to be more than just a fond memory, it’s time to get serious about conserving the environment. And getting serious cannot be contingent on the province electing a particular political party. Alberta needs a collaborative, post-partisan approach to environmental conservation.

In 1895, a less crowded era, Canada’s government set aside Waterton Lakes National Park for nature, essentially embracing the idea that nature could best be protected by strong government regulations and by taking land out of the commercial marketplace. This model of conservation served the park well through much of the 20th century; Waterton became known for its thriving wildlife populations, clean streams and diverse, pristine ecosystems.

A century in, I became Waterton’s first conservation biologist. My job was to monitor the park’s ecological health, diagnose any conservation problems and advise how to solve those problems. By the late 20th century, serious strains were developing in Waterton, and many other parks. For one thing, the increasingly sophisticated science of landscape ecology had conclusively debunked the idea that natural systems stop at park boundaries. Grizzly bears, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, bull trout and other vital elements of Waterton’s protected ecosystem actually relied more on the private ranches outside the park than on the park itself. This was for two reasons: First, the most productive land—the best land for wildlife—had been left outside the park, where it could be put to work producing cows, timber and other economic goods. Second, the park was a popular tourism destination, so wildlife enjoyed more peace and quiet on adjacent ranches whose owners strictly limited access.

The biggest threat to Waterton that my colleagues and I identified in the 1990s was, ironically, caused by the park itself. As a tourism and outdoor recreation destination, the national park increased the market value of real estate adjacent to its boundaries. Land that had been used profitably for cattle ranching for most of the 20th century was now worth much more if subdivided and sold for recreational second homes and tourist resorts. In 1997 real-estate speculators wanted to build a large subdivision right on the park boundaries. Access would have been from a park road. I worked with lawyers to put in place a regulatory access-closure to cut off access from inside the park. The approach made sense within the traditional conservation paradigm of protecting nature through laws and restrictions. Given the economics and politics of land development, however, regulating access wasn’t likely to work for long.

“We must be careful about parks being a substitute for conservation. The challenge is to live with the land” -Preston Manning

Then, at the eleventh hour, just as the County of Cardston was poised to approve the development, the Nature Conservancy of Canada brokered the purchase of the land by private citizens who valued nature and understood what was at stake. The NCC is a national land trust organization that works as a kind of realtor for nature, facilitating market transactions that protect private land from nature-unfriendly development. Their last-minute intervention demonstrated that, in a free market, conservation buyers are sometimes willing to pay more than real estate developers can come up with, to keep ecologically important land in its natural state.

That was the beginning of a remarkable conservation initiative—the Waterton Front project—that saw the NCC mobilize $50-million of private money in the ensuing decade and a half to protect over 100 km2 of ranchland. Major funders included the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and John and Barbara Poole, but many other Canadians anted up smaller amounts to buy protection for the area’s rich biodiversity and open spaces in the face of competing economic pressures.

The traditional conservation approach of setting aside public parks and establishing laws to protect them secured the core park area and also established the value proposition that wilderness in southwestern Alberta is worthy of protection. However, when the economic law of supply and demand put the adjacent land at risk, the traditional conservation approach proved inadequate. Fortunately, private enterprise stepped in.

Ranching persists as an economic land-use because of private conservation investments. Grizzly bears, sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans thrive in the Waterton Front today because of ranching. And none of it would have happened if government had not set aside a national park in this spectacular corner of the province more than a century ago. Both public and private initiatives are required for conservation today.

If the political right is anti-environment, then one might expect to find Preston Manning, widely recognized as a voice for the libertarian right, among those most fervently promoting nature-exploiting economic policies. The son of Bible populist and long-time Alberta premier Ernest Manning, Preston Manning is a cofounder of the Reform Party and an early mentor to Stephen Harper, likely the most anti-environment prime minister Canada has ever had. But Manning spends a surprising amount of time thinking about how to protect and restore the environment—from a conservative perspective. Pointing out that “conservation” and “conservative” are derived from the same root word, he insists that conservatives are missing the boat by buying into the common belief that concern for the environment is not a conservative value.

Manning, however, is not persuaded that early 20th century prescriptions involving government regulation and saving wildlife in public parks will work in the 21st century. “Are the public policies, and the direction we’ve been going in, achieving conservation objectives and can they continue to do [so] under increasing pressure of growing populations?” he asks. “If the answer is no or that we’re not satisfied, that gives you a case for looking at the provision of ecological goods and services through market mechanisms.

“I don’t think we’re making a lot of progress on conservation. I think governments and government policy are as likely part of the problem as part of the solution, so I’m more inclined to look at other mechanisms.”


Grizzlies, sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans thrive in the Waterton Front today because of ranching, which is often economic only because of private conservation investments. Wildlife would also be in bad shape had government not set aside Waterton National Park. (Kyle Marquardt)

Conservatives, Manning asserted in a 2010 Globe and Mail op-ed, are “in the best position to provide fresh leadership on the environmental front… applying the core concepts of fiscal conservatism… to living within our means ecologically and balancing the ecological budget… and most importantly, harnessing market mechanisms to the task of environmental protection and conservation as the ‘signature contribution’ of conservatives to environmental and economic sustainability.”

When I interviewed Manning four years after his article was published, he was frustrated. “The difficulty with governments at the political level, both Edmonton and Ottawa, is that their strategists tend to conceptualize issues as either shield or sword,” he said. “The sword issues being the ones you’re willing to invest your political capital on and go out and crusade for, and the shield issues being ones where you’ve kind of given up before you start. And unfortunately for a number of conservative regimes, healthcare reform and the environment get conceptualized [as shield issues], so it’s hard to get proactive approaches.”

His concern is shared by former federal environment minister Jim Prentice. Widely touted as the future leader of the provincial PC party, and formerly seen as a contender for the federal Conservative Party leadership, Prentice recently rebuked the Harper government for undermining Canada’s environmental reputation with changes to environmental legislation and failure to follow through on commitments to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from the oil and gas sector. “We should not cede this ground to others or allow ourselves to be portrayed as indifferent to the world around us,” he said at the March 2014 annual Manning Networking Conference. “I can say from hard experience: We can’t ever again allow ourselves as a country to be off-footed, and be caught in a circumstance where we are following rather than leading.”

Conservative thinkers may well call for environmental leadership, but their political parties appear uninterested to the point of obtuseness. Under Harper the federal Conservatives have proclaimed environmental groups one step removed from terrorist organizations. Far from embracing carbon taxes—a form of full-cost accounting consistent with conservative principles—Harper’s insider government used the small print in budget bills to rewrite the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and other environmental legislation. By exempting resource industries from environmental due diligence, Harper has virtually ensured that those industries can continue to externalize the environmental costs of doing business, meaning citizens will eventually swallow the environmental losses and foot the cleanup costs. At the same time, the government has directed the Canada Revenue Agency to audit the books of public interest organizations that traditionally speak up for the environment on behalf of Canadians.

While Stephen Harper’s hyper-partisan, development-focused government seems to ignore conservative environmental thinkers, Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government might be paying a bit more attention.

The 2009 Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) was a response to widespread criticism that Alberta’s unplanned and overheated resource development, a product of laissez faire policies during the Klein years, was unsustainable and would lead to massive future environmental costs. Also there was a growing social licence issue—widespread international disapproval—making it increasingly difficult to get Alberta oil and gas to global markets. The ALSA mandates regional planning to balance competing resource development, conservation and other land-use pressures. One regional plan—for the Athabasca drainage, where rapid oil sands development has created the most urgent need for land use planning—has already been completed. Public consultation on the second plan, for the densely populated, water-poor and biologically impaired South Saskatchewan region, was completed in the spring of 2014.

Land use planning doesn’t appear in Manning’s conservative songbook, smacking as it does of government intervention in the joyously anarchic self-regulation of the free market. But the ALSA also includes a regulatory framework for “Conservation and Stewardship Tools.” The legislation provides for government to develop new market-based instruments, invest public funds directly into environmental stewardship, modify tax regimes to promote conservation outcomes, and expand the use of conservation easements to protect wildlife habitat. This part of the Act goes directly to Manning’s call to create markets for environmental goods and services. If market forces are already helping protect nature in places like the Waterton Front through private land transactions, government should be able to build on this model with carbon markets, transferable development credits and other new trade mechanisms that mobilize market forces to secure critical habitat for endangered species, restore wetlands, hold back floodwaters and sequester carbon in soils and vegetation.

The basic premise behind creating markets for environmental goods and services is that people who benefit from such goods (e.g., wildlife or open spaces) and services (e.g., groundwater recharge or carbon sequestration) should be able to buy them from private property owners. More simply put, a farmer who spots a burrowing owl in her pasture shouldn’t go home panicking about new restrictions on her land use—instead, she should be able to count on financial reward either by public conservation subsidies or by private investors concerned about endangered prairie wildlife. If an oil company nearby can get surface access to native prairie only by investing in tangible conservation of the wildlife that depends on it, for example, ALSA enables a regulatory regime that could see the company pay an annual premium to that farmer, which she in turn would use to keep the place attractive to owls. Everyone, arguably, would win.

If more restrictive regulations—favoured more by the left-leaning side of the political spectrum—were the only tools available to keep owls around, a farmer who managed his grassland well enough to attract owls may end up feeling punished by restrictions.

But getting markets for environmental goods and services right is a tricky proposition. There’s plenty of room for misfires and unintended consequences.

Some of our greatest historical conservation successes actually arose from taking nature out of the marketplace. It was the ban on commercial sale of dead animals that brought waterfowl, deer and other animals back from the brink of eradication in the early 20th century. That’s why the Alberta Fish & Game Association is watching the development of environmental goods and services markets suspiciously. If one of the new market approaches lets ranchers charge a fee for hunting public wildlife on their private land, for example, landowners may be motivated to kill off native hawks, wolves and other predators or to plow up native grassland to grow feed crops for trophy game. Martin Sherren, executive vice-president of the AFGA, recently wrote that any move toward paid hunting would lead to “the erosion of public support for wildlife management as a whole, not to mention having a disastrous effect on the world-class hunting opportunities Albertans have in their own province.”

Harvey Locke acknowledges Preston Manning’s sincerity and intellect, but he doesn’t buy the idea that the solution to all our environmental challenges should be sought in the marketplace. Those who consider Alberta Liberals to be a species as endangered as the burrowing owl had to rethink their assumptions after the 2012 federal by-election in Calgary-Centre, when Locke won almost a third of the votes, coming a close second to the Conservative candidate. Locke, an internationally renowned environmentalist, mobilized a successful 1990s campaign to put the brakes on commercial development in Banff National Park. He co-founded the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and has recently become a prominent spokesperson for the “Nature Needs Half” movement, which calls for reserving at least half of the Earth’s lands and waters for biodiversity conservation.

Over coffee in Canmore recently, Locke explained his reservations about what he describes as the libertarian theology of Adam Smith’s invisible hand: “There’s a passage in the New Testament that says ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.’ My concern is that monetizing things you didn’t create or add any value to is a false activity.”

Still, some market mechanisms may be appropriate and useful, Locke says. “Biodiversity offsets, for example: If the idea is that I’m generating this impact here to generate wealth for me and society, and I have an ability to offset that somewhere else to prevent harm to something of equal or greater value to the environment or society, then I think that’s an important and worthwhile conversation. What I don’t like is if that gets reduced to some kind of overly simple metrics—for example, I damage 100 acres, so I have to protect 100 acres. It needs to be at the level of values: What are the values we are trying to save or offset? With biodiversity the value we’re trying to save is the full suite of all naturally occurring organisms and the natural processes that maintain them in a given system. That’s not easy to work out in a market context, but it’s a worthwhile conversation we need to have.

“This idea that we can monetize the commons feels to me like it’s masking the fundamental truth that this species—humanity—has to learn to live within its ecological means. To put it in a market context and to keep going with the market approach avoids that basic challenge.”

Locke argues that wrong-headed responses to environmental challenges originate from flawed thought models. The common “triple bottom line,” of three interlocking circles representing economy, environment and societal well-being, is one of those thought models. A more realistic way to present those relationships, in Locke’s view, is as three concentric circles. The largest, outside circle is the environment. Within that circle is a smaller one representing society, and embedded in that one is a smaller circle for the economy.

“The way I approach it is like this: The environment is the context for all life on Earth. Society is a subdivision, wholly and completely dependent on the environment. And within society is the economy, wholly dependent on society,” Locke says, adding that at least half the natural world must be protected and interconnected. “That’s what every study shows us,” he says. “That is why we have national parks and wilderness areas.”

Progressives such as Locke have long argued for more parks and regulations to protect wildlife, waters and natural habitat from commercial exploitation. Libertarian conservatives such as Manning, however, rarely look for governments to put land out of reach of resource companies. Still, Manning agrees that parks are valuable and that there’s a place for them. “But I think we have to be careful about having parks be a substitute for conservation,” he told me. “To assume that if we barricade off a few hundred thousand acres in the north, we’ve somehow done our duty to conserve the land… The bigger challenge is how to live with the land, with the water, with the air in an integrated fashion.”

Just as Harvey Locke is right that the environment sustains all life on Earth, and is too complex and all-embracing to be conserved by simply turning it into a bundle of marketable goods and services, Manning scores an important point when he points out that biodiversity, water and air must be conserved everywhere, not just in protected landscapes—that we require new thinking about private-lands conservation. And that’s the important point: They’re both right. No single point of view and no single set of conservation tools will deliver meaningful conservation results in this crowded, complicated century.

“The environment is the context for all life. Society is a subdivision, wholly dependent on the environment” -Harvey Locke

Where people put partisanship aside in the cause of conservation, the results can exceed anyone’s expectations. This past winter I was invited to the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s annual “Eat and Greet” dinner event for those involved in the Waterton Front. I found an eclectic group gathered at the Twin Butte community hall—ranchers, young biologists, well-heeled urban investors, government bureaucrats. Scratch anyone in the room and you might come up with a Wildroser, a PC, a Green or a Liberal. But nobody was scratching anyone; instead the place was abuzz with cheerful conversation among people who, only a decade earlier, had only talked about, not with, one another.

In the 15 years since that first conservation land transaction on the Waterton Front, an unusual social synergy has emerged. Now that they know one another and are united by a common cause, the same rural–urban, producer–investor, non-partisan mix of people has teamed up on stewardship projects too. They work together to hand-pull non-native weeds, install electric fences and stronger doors on granaries to keep bears out of temptation, and even install “deadstock” bins where ranchers can deposit stillborn calves and other dead livestock rather than leave the remains out on the range where they might attract wolves and grizzlies into close contact with cattle.

The dinner chatter was not about politics; it was about conservation—a cause that transcends partisan divides and can clearly build new kinds of community.

Later that night, as I drove home on Alberta’s Cowboy Trail—Highway 22—moonlight glistened on snow-covered grassland where the road curved through the immense Waldron Ranch, north of Lundbreck. Most of that spread is privately owned, so, while it is vitally important for several at-risk Alberta wildlife species, it will never be set aside as a protected park. But I could drink in the magic of its landscape untroubled by worries about what the future might bring, because I had just learned that, based on the success of the Waterton Front, the Nature Conservancy of Canada had secured a conservation easement on most of the Waldron’s 12,357 hectares of pristine foothills landscape. With protected public lands to the west, it is now one of the largest conservation holdings in western Alberta—more proof of what becomes possible when people define themselves around what they care for, rather than their politics.

The Waterton Front should serve as inspiration, and corroboration, for an approach to environmental conservation that draws from all sides of the political spectrum. Conservation, far from a cause compatible with one political philosophy, can and should be the great social cause of the 21st century, breaking down partisan divides and mobilizing a full range of approaches to keep nature whole and vital into the future. The consequences of failure are too great, and the rewards of success too important, for Albertans to settle for anything less.

Kevin Van Tighem hast studied wildlife and their habitats in Western Canada for almost 40 years. He lives in Canmore.


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