Chris Pecora

Perverse Policy

How we sacrifice our wetlands

By Kevin Van Tighem

October, for me, used to mean duck hunting: the fecund smell of prairie potholes, a spreading sunrise glow along the horizon and the whistle of mallard wings overhead. Saskatchewan describes itself as “the land of living skies,” but that title belongs to pretty much any wetland ecosystem. Long, shifting lines of snow geese shimmer against the sky. Swans and herons fly heavily above the reeds and rushes. Coots creak, ducks quack, small, shy sparrows lisp among the willows, and by the time the sun is fully up it seems like the world fairly hums with life.

I don’t hunt ducks anymore, but it was only an excuse anyway; I still haunt Alberta’s wet places whenever I can.

It’s not just about ducks, after all; these are hotbeds of biodiversity. From beaver ponds to prairie sloughs to the boreal forest’s sprawling muskeg peatlands, at least 600 species of plants, animals and insects depend on our wetlands. These ecosystems also absorb copious amounts of carbon. One way to reduce the CO2 in our atmosphere—much of it the result of our burning coal and other hydrocarbons that originated in prehistoric marshes—would be to let nature store it in wetlands.

But for that to happen, the wetlands have to be there.

When Alberta became a province, more than one-fifth was wetland. Now, however, the Institute of Wetlands and Waterfowl Research calculates that 64 per cent of the sloughs and marshes in the settled areas of the province are gone. That means we’ve wiped out more than 21,500 km2 of vital wildlife habitat, along with its ability to store carbon and recharge groundwater. Agriculture and cities account for most of that wetland destruction.

Farther north, oil sands developments are now eating into boreal wetlands that once teemed with sandhill cranes, palm warblers, wood frogs, moose and other native wildlife. According to the Alberta Wilderness Association, northern Alberta contains “…about 11 per cent of Canada’s peatlands… representing unique ecosystems that provide habitat for over 400 species of plants, many of them threatened or endangered. Many wildlife species are associated with peatlands as well, including the endangered woodland caribou. The role these vast peat bogs play in climate stability is just beginning to be understood, and this may be their greatest ecological service.”

Every wetland in the province belongs to the public—something many landowners don’t know or prefer not to acknowledge. If those are our wetlands, our government had better have a plan. And they do. After many months of analysis and consultation, Alberta’s Wetland Policy was released in 2011. It was intended to end our devastating rate of wetland loss.

Almost a decade later, it’s failing to deliver.

CAPP is basically telling Albertans that we’ll lose our wetlands when companies develop oil sands (earning billions) and that they won’t pay for restoration.

The original draft policy prescribed a “no-net-loss” standard: Every acre of wetland damaged by development would have to be replaced by an acre of the same kind of wetland elsewhere. Given the massive losses already suffered, this set the bar pretty low. Still, on a go-forward basis it made sense.

In a paper for Environmental Marketplace, policy analysts Becca Madsen and Hannah Kett describe what then went wrong. Of 20 interest sectors the government consulted, 18 supported the working draft. Two—the Alberta Chamber of Resources and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)—were opposed. “These dissenters represent economic interest in the development of the… oil sands,” wrote Madsen and Kett. “Both opposed the policy of ‘no-net loss,’ [claiming it] would cost billions and inhibit economic development.”

The analysts add, a bit incredulously, that CAPP argued that peatlands are impossible to restore and “…would have to be replaced with an alternative wetland restoration/creation [which] ‘undermin(es) the ecological rationale for the no-net-loss paradigm altogether’…. CAPP is basically telling the people of Alberta that they will lose their wetlands when oil companies develop oil sands (earning billions) and that these oil companies are not going to pay for their restoration.”

Perverse logic, but oil rules Alberta; tame politicians approved a wetlands policy that lets developers—especially in the north—simply pay fees or contribute to research or education rather than actually replace the wetlands they ruin.

Most finalized policies, by the time everyone has had a kick at watering them down, are already weak soup. Implementation then becomes a series of compromises and reinterpretations. In the case of Alberta’s wetland policy, the road of least resistance has been to lowball the cost of wetland replacement so that developers face no real financial disincentive from continuing to trash our surviving wetlands. And in the north, toxic tailings ponds grow while peatlands vanish.

CAPP helped turn Alberta’s wetlands policy into an oil sands one. Good trick. 

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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