My dad used to derive a quiet pleasure from driving our family’s station wagon past stuck four-wheel-drives. Alberta’s foothills and mountains had few good roads in the 1960s. Dad took things slow on our camping adventures. When the roads got slick he got out and put chains on the back wheels. We kids would wave as we clanked slowly past young men whose overconfidence in their powerful machines had got them mired in the ditches.
Alberta’s public lands seemed wild and pristine to us kids in those days. Campgrounds were clean, quiet and rarely crowded. Big logging companies hadn’t arrived yet to denude the hills. Sometimes we saw deer, bears or lynx. Trout were abundant, at least for those willing to walk a bit. It was a great place to grow up.
We walked ourselves skinny every summer. Alberta’s increasingly fevered search for black gold had oil companies carving seismic cutlines across hill and dale. Those cutlines offered shortcuts cross-country into creeks that hitherto had only been tantalizing squiggles on Dad’s maps. Breaking out into a meadow full of birdsong after two hours of hard hiking was always a magic moment. Who knew what monster fish might lurk here? And always, farther upstream, remote valleys hinted at more magic and mystery.
I was born into an Alberta comprised mostly of quiet, conservative people. People like Dad who took things slowly and carefully—not just on slippery backroads but in life generally. People like Mom who preferred to give rather than take. The first time I heard an old rancher say he wanted to be able to look back and know he’d left the land a bit better than when he found it, it made sense to me. That was what one expected to hear in an Alberta whose people considered stewardship a way of life, citizenship a duty, and frugality and restraint basic virtues.
But things changed.
New oil wealth gave way to a sense of impatient entitlement among many who tasted the easy abundance of the oil-rich 1970s. Soon traditional Alberta virtues were passé. Well-being was no longer enough; prosperity became an overriding policy priority. The path to prosperity involved aggressive exploitation of our public lands. Forestry ramped up. Oil and gas ramped up. People could afford new toys like off-highway vehicles (OHVs), dirt bikes and snowmobiles, so recreation ramped up too. Both at work and at play, a more self-absorbed generation began filling once-peaceful hinterlands with damage and abuse.
Albertans used to consider stewardship a way of life, citizenship a duty, and frugality and restraint basic virtues. But things changed.
The seismic lines had been left for nature to reclaim, but their new grass and shrubs vanished as expensive OHVs turned them into muddy raceways. Once-remote trout streams were no longer hidden rewards for those willing to walk a couple hours—they were fished out and full of tire tracks. No mystery remained farther up-valley either; people and their motorized toys were there too.
As destructive pastimes scarred the landscape, newcomers came to see damaged land as normal. So they didn’t even try to take care of it. They brought their beer and their guns and their stereos. The rest of us stopped going. Our own public lands neither felt safe for families nor offered quiet recreation in wild, clean countryside like they used to.
I suspect most Albertans are still like that rancher who said he wanted to leave the land better than when he found it. But our public lands no longer reflect that stewardship ethic. Instead, they now bear the scars of a more recent ethos of selfish entitlement. It’s like they ceased being ours.
Alberta’s public lands should be a living legacy for future generations—healthy forests and meadows yielding clean water in streams full of native trout, where families find peace, inspiration and healthy outdoor exercise, and where the best Alberta values are passed on from one generation to the next. Instead, our native trout are now classified as threatened species. Gullied landscapes spill muddy floods each spring; then streams run low and silty in summer. Those who see land and streams merely as challenges for motorized play have taken over. The rest of us have had to retreat to a few protected parks where quiet still prevails. But that simply overcrowds those parks.
Kids need green, living places where they can be introduced to exercise, wild nature and the ethics of stewardship and restraint. Our public lands used to be those places. They could be again. That would require a government with the courage and vision finally to call an end to land abuse by a noisy minority and give our public lands back to all of us—to be enjoyed with the quiet decency that has always defined Albertans at our best.
Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.