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Issues
For All Albertans

 























Clean water, fresh air, nutritious food, a healthy and prosperous community; these are important issues common to all people.   In Southern Alberta it is our heritage and good fortune to have all of these advantages in good measure. Yet experience around the world tells us that to maintain them requires a certain stewardship - an understanding of the limits to natural systems.

The Pekisko Rangeland provides economic benefit for all Albertans. It's a solar-powered economy that grows a rich renewable resource - native fescue grass. This hardy grass gives us a number of free essential services: water protection, soil building, drought insurance, plus nutritious cattle and wildlife feed. Economists call this Natural Capital.


Learn new interesting facts that might surprise you!


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Read more about these Key Issues that can effect You

Clean Water

Rangelands

Economics

Health

Rough Fescue Grass

Sour Gas

Wildlife

Topsoil

Development





Photo: Eastern Slopes Foothills

You can stand in the Pekisko Rangeland and look west to the Rocky Mountains, or east to the prairie. It is a grassy border of rolling hills that stands between the mountain parks and the cultivated farmland. And it provides a host of free services we often take for granted. This is the story of those services and how the ability of the rangelands to provide them is threatened. It is the challenge of all Albertans to protect this heritage.

Grazing for cattle and wildlife is the ideal use for this land that once provided a home for buffalo. A combination of high altitude, steep hills and weather extremes makes it unsuitable for farming. But it has other economic value as well. It collects and cleans water for towns, cities and irrigation; and it attracts tourism and the movie industry - both clean industries. There is an old saying that "you don't know what you value until you lose it."

Let's understand the value of the rangeland so we don't lose its benefits.

 

Grass is the dominant feature of the rangeland, and the most important of the grasses is rough fescue. Rough fescue is a beautiful grass, tall and elegant. Alberta is the only jurisdiction in North America where all three types of rough fescue occur - Plains, Foothills and Northern. Fescue grasslands are vital range for wildlife and of great significance for the ranching industry. They have been and continue to be threatened by some human activities.

A challenge for Albertans is to commit to sound stewardship of our remaining rough fescue grasslands so that rough fescue is a living emblem of our prairie heritage throughout the next century. Another challenge for the next one hundred years is to learn to restore rough fescue to lands where human caused disturbances have resulted in its elimination or significant decline.1,2

Foothills rough fescue (Festuca campestris) is an ideal grass for year-round forage of both livestock and wildlife. A study on forage selection determined that "The high preference for rough fescue appeared to be determined by the accessibility of the large tufted plants to cattle. This was particularly evident in winter when access to plants was impaired by snow cover. Successful winter grazing on these grasslands is enhanced with a large proportion of rough fescue plants in the stand."  3

The importance of this grass is well documented. In fact the Province of Alberta has recently adopted Rough Fescue as its official grass emblem. What is not so well known is how small and shrinking is the area of rough fescue remaining in the province, and the fact that we have not been able to re-create rough fescue grassland over large areas once it is disturbed.4 Oil and Gas exploration and development creates a cumulative impact on the rangeland that results in the replacement of rough fescue by opportunist plants poorly suited to the year-round needs of cattle and wildlife.

We are in danger of losing this valuable resource and the economic value that it supports.

 

Photo:
showing heavy root system of native fescue grass

Topsoil is the thin layer of the earth that provides almost all of our food except that from the sea. In fact, good topsoil is also a significant carbon sink, storing carbon that might otherwise end up contributing to global warming. And tall grasses with deep roots such as rough fescue (heavy roots illustrated at the left) are excellent at sequestering carbon in the soil.


Protecting the topsoil is key to maintaining fertility in the grasslands. Soil degradation, which includes soil erosion by wind and water, as well as soil salinity, soil compaction and organic matter decline, may be viewed as the reciprocal of soil health. Wind erosion damaged an estimated 900,000 hectares (two million acres) of agricultural soils in Alberta during the 1980s.4  The native grasses are well suited to surviving the rigorous climate of the foothills and both protecting and helping to build good soil. And healthy soil also filters water trapped by the grasses and passes it into the subsoil where it can replenish ground water and supply aquifers.

We need to ensure that the grassland topsoil is not damaged by cumulative development.


 

Water is necessary for all life and the value of abundant clean water to health and a vibrant economy is well known. The Pekisko Rangeland forms an important part of the watershed that supplies water for towns, irrigation, ranching and cities in southern Alberta. And this includes underground aquifers as well as surface water into the South Saskatchewan river.

Protecting our watersheds is tantamount to protecting our way of life. Scientists are saying that the potential for climate change will likely bring more extreme droughts. Thus we need to ensure that watersheds like the Pekisko Rangeland are safe from harm.

Read more about how the Pekisko grasslands help supply you with clean water here.

The watersheds within the Pekisko Rangeland are threatened by natural gas and Coal Bed Methane development as well as the 'bow wave' of urban encroachment.

 

 

Family

Health is important to us all and we know that clean water, clear unpolluted air, and healthy food are important factors of community health. And health is not just absence of identifiable disease, but an ongoing and sustainable physical and emotional energy; a happiness and peace that permeates a community and makes it productive. Healthy people don't think much about their health, they just take it for granted.


Prosperity is closely linked to the productivity of the community members and it is known, although not in sufficient detail, that poor health has a strong negative effect on productivity. Health in this context refers to the physical and mental health of people, plus the health of the biosystems that provide their clean water, clear air and nutritious food. Anything that impacts poorly on this health will ultimately cause a decline in prosperity. And in time this decline will ripple outward to effect the larger community.

A community involves a complex interdependent relationship between people, and between them and the economic system that sustains them. In the Pekisko Rangeland that sustainable economic system depends upon the fundamental natural resources of special grass, good topsoil, water, sunshine, an ecosystem that includes the diamond willow brush and abundant wildlife, plus human knowledge and the ethic of stewardship. Any development activity that damages these resources will ultimately effect all of southern Alberta.

The health of the people and the natural bio-resources on which they depend is threatened by natural gas and coal bed methane development, sour gas, and the potential for chemicals that are released from flaring.5



 

Exploration for Natural Gas in the Pekisko Rangeland is proceeding despite warnings by Scientists that it may irreparably damage the native grassland, and rough fescue in particular. We simply don't know enough about how to restore it after the trucks and drilling rigs and compressors and other equipment have left.6


Sour Gas, or natural gas containing a significant amount of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), can be a significant hazard to people, animals and wildlife. A burst sour gas well in China on December 23, 2003 killed over 200 people and many animals.7   While such incidents are rare, of more concern is the potential for damaging the health of people and animals with long-term exposure to low levels of the gas from leaks, venting and flaring. New research suggests that such exposure can cause serious health problems.8

Photo: Drilling Rig

Coal Bed Methane is natural gas released from coal beds. In order to access this gas it is necessary to drill multiple wells into the coal bed (up to 8 wells per section and occasionally more) to reduce the pressure and draw off any water existing within the formation. This amount of drilling can have a significant negative impact on the grassland through wellsites, access roads, compressor sites and pipelines.

We need to ensure that any such development is put on pause while further research is done according to the Pekisko Group goals.

 

Image: Brad Stelfox

Cumulative Development is the sum total of many individual developments within a particular geographic area. Each individual activity may appear to have minor or negligible deleterious effects but, combined in space and time, they act additively and synergistically in a significant and negative manner.

Some of the cumulative developments which are impacting and threatening the native grassland includes urban encroachment, acreages, roads, oil and gas development, seismic cut-lines, mining, and recreational activities. A serious problem with this type of cumulative development is the variety of management agencies that are responsible for making decisions concerning them plus the fact that these agencies seldom coordinate their decisions. For example: wildlife management, forestry, transportation, energy, agriculture and municipal planning.

One way to ameliorate this issue is to have a provincial land use plan that recognizes the concept of a Dominant Land Use and allowable maximum development within that framework. Any agency faced with approving a development application would then be able to judge the application according to this land use plan.

We need to ensure that the native fescue grassland isn't lost through a 'thousand small cuts', each one seemingly innocuous.

 


The economic value of grasslands  and other forms of biological natural capital is either missing or is not a key part of most economic models. In fact we often forget how critical it is to our standard of living because we have been blessed with such an abundance of natural resources - both mineral and biological. Yet this natural capital, and especially our biological natural capital, needs to be effectively managed and sustained.9


Long-term community prosperity  depends on all three forms of capital: natural (Eg. minerals, fossil fuels, forests, clean water, agriculture), produced (Eg. machinery, equipment, buildings and roads) and human (Eg. a healthy, motivated and well-educated population). If we want to ensure prosperity for our children we must not allow the balance of these three to be broken by sacrificing one for another.

Economics

The Pekisko Rangeland provides economic benefit for all Albertans. This source of biological natural capital is a solar-powered economy that grows a rich renewable resource - native fescue grass. This hardy grass gives us a number of free essential services: water protection, soil building, drought insurance, and nutritious cattle and wildlife feed. Yet the 2003 Alberta Provincial Budget does not contain a single measure of the economic value of this type of natural capital.10

We need to restore the balance of perceived value between our underground natural resources and our surface biological natural resources. We measure what we treasure and while our fossil fuels will ultimately run out, our grassland can continue to produce economic value so long as our good climate and the stewardship of dedicated people remains.

The fescue economy is the best and wisest use of the Pekisko Rangeland but this grassland has another value as well. Tourism and the film industry bring significant economic benefit to Southern Alberta and they come because of the wide-open spaces, the unparalleled landscapes and the clear blue skies. We need to also consider this value when evaluating proposals to engage in development of resources such as coal bed methane that require significant surface infrastructure.

We need to ensure that the extraction of other natural resources does not upset the balance and damage the long-term economic value of the native grassland.

 

Mule deer

A flourishing community of wild animals spends their time grazing in the rangeland. Like cattle, they also appreciate the year-round nourishment provided by the fescue grass. This wild community of ungulates also supports a variety of predators thus helping to create a healthy ecosystem. The area harbours Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer, Elk, Moose, Black Bear, Cougar, and upland game birds.11 Wolves also frequent the area.

The Pekisko Rangeland is part of the Foothills Parkland subregion which is transitional between the Foothills Fescue subregion and the Montane Ecoregion. It is home to many mountain birds and raptors as well as some wildlife species of special significance (ie: sensitive, may be at risk, at risk). Some of these that use the area include Grizzly Bear, American Badger, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Ferruginous Hawk. Other significant species which may use the area include the Trumpeter Swan, Willow Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike and the Long-toed Salamander.12

Mining and forestry clearcutting plus intensive development that chops up this rangeland with access roads, wellsites, compressors, power lines and other infrastructure will have a negative impact on the ability of these wildlife species to survive and thrive. Yet this wildlife is part of the natural capital that attracts skilled educated people to Alberta, thus increasing our human capital.

The 'Alberta Advantage' is often defined as low taxes, sound fiscal management, subsurface natural resources and well-educated healthy human capital. We need to include in this list the advantage of our biological natural capital, and ensure that we augment and manage it effectively.


References

1

Pavlick L.E. and J. Looman. 1984. Taxonomy and nomenclature of routh fescues, Festuca altaica, F. campestris (F. scabrella var. major) and F. hallii, in Canada and the adjacent part of United States. Can. J. Bot. 62: 1739-1749.

2

Tannas, Kathy. 1998. Common Plants of the Western Rangelands (Volume One). Lethbridge Community College.

3

Willms, Walter D., and Rode, Lyle M., 1998. Forage Selection by cattle on fescue prairie in summer and winter. J. of Range Management, September 1998, v. 51: 496-500.

4

Introduction to Wind Erosion Control, May 2001, Agriculture, Food and Rural Development website, Government of Alberta

5

Roth, Sheldon, and V. Goodwin. 2001. Health Effects of Hydrogen Sulphide: Knowledge Gaps. p1-2.

6

Bradley, Cheryl, M. Quinn and D. Duke. 2002. Local and Regional Ecological Effects Analysis: Proposed drilling program of Vermilion Resources Ltd in an area of Native Foothills Parkland. p38-60.

7

Toxic gas turns huge area into 'death zone'. Calgary Herald newspaper, December 27, 2003: A26.

8

Roth, Sheldon, and V. Goodwin. 2001. Health Effects of Hydrogen Sulphide: Knowledge Gaps: ix,121

9

Worbets, B., and Loleen Berdahl. 2003. Western Canada's Natural Capital: Toward a New Public Policy Framework, Canada West Foundation. p2.

10

Alberta Finance, Budget 2003. Edmonton, Alberta. 101-123

11

Bradley, Cheryl, M. Quinn and D. Duke. 2002. Local and Regional Ecological Effects Analysis: Proposed drilling program of Vermilion Resources Ltd in an area of Native Foothills Parkland. p26.

12

Bradley, p.V


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