It's different at the 'Toilet Bowl'

Richard Burke

Did some venting this week. It’s been building for years. Venting in itself isn’t particularly productive, but can sometimes invite others to pause and think. Or, they could just further retrench into their intractable ways.
The cause for my steam-letting was an e-mail from a fellow seeking vehicle access for older, less-mobile anglers to a spot on the Crowsnest River closed to vehicle access for about seven years. A gate has kept cars and trucks and, usually, ATVs, out so the river bank and adjacent land, long abused by mining and human indifference, could be rehabilitated and conserved.

The conservation effort has been ongoing on two Crowsnest River stretches covering about 4 kilometres of river frontage at two locations, near Burmis Lake and downstream of the (west) Hillcrest Bridge. Oldman River Chapter, Trout Unlimited Canada signed leases with the provincial government in 2002 and 2007, basically agreeing to be stewards of the Crown land for 25 years.

The water has been great trout habitat. Some surmised the trout in the Hillcrest section benefited (got bigger) from treated sewage released above the “Toilet Bowl”, a swirling pool on the river just downstream of the Hillcrest sewage treatment ponds.
But, in both cases, the adjacent land had seen better days – before people started using it for dumping mine tailings or, in the case of Burmis, allowing cattle to graze and not controlling access to the river bank, which over time can cause erosion to habitat beneficial to fish and other aquatic creatures and even the quality of water available to humans.

Work to control invasive weeds such as blue weed, tansy daisy and toadflax has produced obvious results. Removal of barbed-wire fencing that over the years had gone into various states of disrepair allowed for vegetation to recover and made it safer for pedestrian traffic. The key was pedestrian – anglers and others who could now enjoy the space, perhaps in a more natural setting.
The connection between vehicles and habitat destruction was more obvious in the Hillcrest section. You could see from Highway 3 at the turn near the Bellevue Mine the flat area beside the river turned into a mud bog because people just had to drive through it for fishing or other endeavours. I did the same, although not when it was muddy.
I recall on one occasion driving as far as the trail would allow, only to find a trailer parked in the trees, there for the summer, obviously, because the owner had planted a garden. Random camping in the extreme.

I don’t feel particularly good, in hindsight, about driving through that flat. It’s just something everyone did, even CP Rail workers doing track maintenance. But, when we considered what needed to be done to salvage the area, the only solution was to close it to traffic. Shell Canada agreed to install a gate at the lease entrance. TU also needed to plant large rocks in the area beside the gate to keep traffic from simply driving around it.
The provincial government had spent $2 million years ago trying to rehabilitate the area, that was at one time a huge coal slag pile. The remnants of the coal operation that likely produced the pile can still be seen at the south end of the lease and from Highway 3, a tipple across from the Crowsnest Angler fly shop. A gate was installed then to allow the land to recover without traffic disturbing it, but that didn’t last long, the lock cut by people who, apparently, had little regard for the land itself, only that they just had to use it for whatever purpose. The wild west, you know: anything goes.

Part of the TU rehabilitation effort also involved planting grass seed, approved by Alberta Agriculture, on the old, offending road. Some took, some didn’t. Part of the road, after all, was coal slag. But, it is gradually reviving.
That was about seven years ago. Why, all of a sudden, is some old guy from the Pass wanting to again drive to the toilet bowl about 250 yards downstream of the gate? One assumes it’s because he had always been able to do it and he feels he has some right to continue, despite the costs (about $40,000 and counting) and other considerable volunteer efforts to somehow save this piece of public land. And, as one of our members wonders, if he can’t walk down the path, how would he ever negotiate the tricky river bank?

My rant was in response to a guy who apparently wanted to do his thing, regardless of other consequences. The over-the-top part was that I’ve seen this attitude too often, as I’ve worked with groups which have a conservation component, and got impatient with the view that the environment be damned. “They’re just a bunch of greenies trying to tell us what to do” is the refrain, as though any cause that uses the word environment or conservation is a threat to a particular lifestyle.
In this case, the argument was even that we (TU) are outsiders coming into the Pass. Apparently  doesn’t matter we are all Albertans. Only if you live in the Pass do you have a say over what happens there appears to be the logic. The e-mail writer clearly doesn’t know the TU members who lead the effort on the two leases are Pass residents.

At the root of the discussion (or argument) is that things are different now than when we could go where we wanted and be “free” to pursue our whims. In my view, humans including myself, have not always been particularly responsible in their handling of things in nature that were there when we inherited them. Some of what was here when our generations came along had already been seriously abused.
Doing something to right a wrong involves stewardship, that would suggest we leave what was OK at least as we found it and better, if possible. Burmis and Hillcrest TU leases were a couple of pieces of Alberta that needed to be left better.

So, for those who have a hard time giving up what they feel is their domain, trying looking beyond your noses. You are now sharing it with way more people than you used to, among lots of other reasons to tread more lightly. You, or your contemporaries, didn’t necessarily do good by your decisions on how to use the land, resources, natural features and creatures that were there long before we were.
Adjust. Don’t expect the world to adjust for you.