Acute frustration ... and a plea for Hidden Creek

(Editor's Note: An important letter to the editor from Elspeth Nickle. What are your views? We'd love to hear from you.) 

October 17, 2014

The Honourable Jim Prentice
Premier of Alberta
307 Legislature Bldg.
10800 - 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB  T5K 2B7

Dear Premier Prentice:

I am writing this letter to respectfully ask you to take action and close the trails to mechanized recreational traffic in the Hidden Creek area, one of the waterways in the upper Oldman watershed, in order to protect this valuable and vulnerable stream.

I have been motivated to write this letter because of:

1. The very marked deterioration of Hidden Creek and the area adjacent to it since my last visit only one and a half months ago.
2. Your announcement, as you introduced your new cabinet, that Alberta was under new management which has given me hope that some action might be taken. 
3. An entry which appeared on the AESRD blog on Oct. 4, 2014 which similarly raised my hope that the Forestry Service in this region might be amenable to action.

I am sending this letter by email directly to your office and copying it to a number of other individuals and organizations which I think will find it interesting; please see the cc. list at the bottom. I will follow up by sending it to you by registered mail.  I am hopeful for a timely reply and especially action but, if there is a holdup in your office and I do not hear from you, I will make the extra effort to call and speak with your staff in the hopes that this matter can be expedited.

The reason for my request of immediate action

Ten days my husband and I hiked on foot up Hidden Creek but our happy outing was marred upon our discovery that the conditions around Hidden Creek had badly and visibly deteriorated in the last month and a half.  The water quality in the stream was visibly murky, a marked contrast to the much better water quality on the same day in the upper Oldman, which we forded on foot in order to get into the Hidden Creek area.

The extensive motorized recreational traffic on the trail, which runs in very close proximity to the stream, and recent rains have clearly contributed to this deterioration.  The pictures I have enclosed are by no means isolated shots; the whole of the length of the trail we walked showed similar deterioration. 

Conditions on the trail

Although we were there on a Wednesday (October 1, 2014), when we expected traffic to be nil to low, at least half a dozen ATVs past us.  (We were the only ones on foot).  This is an old trail, which is leftover from I think previous logging or seismic explorations, but it has not reverted to its natural state because, as you can see from the pictures, it is very extensively used.  With the approaching high point of the hunting season, activity can only be expected to increase.

I am sure you are aware that water quality is a prime indicator of the overall health and viability of the watershed; poor water quality can indicate excessive runoff, the inability of the watershed to hold back and store water, or increased difficulty for native fish populations to spawn successfully.   Hidden Creek is one of the few remaining areas in the Crowsnest where native bull trout are still found in any appreciable numbers.  It is worrisome to think what the future holds if current conditions prevail.

Note the fresh tire marks to the left.  Hidden Creek is less than 5 metres to the left of those tracks!

The AESRD blog entry, Oct 4, 2014.

After this disheartening experience, I read with considerable hope the AERSRD blog entry of Oct. 4, 2014 which exhorted the public to learn "how to minimize the impacts of your activities on Alberta's plant and animal habitats" and provided links to Alberta's Species at Risk Guide. 

On page 16, I was pleased to find out that the bull trout is a species at risk, that it is Alberta's provincial fish, and that under Threats, AESRD recognized that "Populations remain low because of habitat loss and degradation (such as sediments in streams) from industrial activity, especially roads" 

Then, in a section entitled How Can You Help?, it suggests among other things:
1) Keep off-highway vehicles out of creeks and streams  and use bridges for stream crossings.
2)Report hanging culverts and off-highway vehicles driving in streams to our nearest [A]ESRD office. 

It seems that AESRD has a very good handle on the direction needed to be taken.  In this case, with the extremely close proximity of the trail to the creek in the Hidden Creek watershed, one could conclude that the road itself is so close, it might as well be in Hidden Creek!  Also, any of the ATV;s we saw had most certainly forded the Oldman in the same place we had to get to the area, and that is most certainly not in keeping with the advice in the Species at Risk Guide.

More conditions on the trail

Further, in my dealings with conservation minded groups, which incidentally is also encouraged in the "How Can You Help?" section, I can attest that there is an acute frustration about reporting off-highway vehicle activity to the nearest AESRD office. It doesn't actually result in any substantive action being taken, or hasn't in the past.  By writing this letter to you, and copying it to the nearest AESRD office, I am hoping for a different outcome.

I am very much hoping that when you said that Alberta was under new management, you meant it. I look forward to your response at your earliest convenience.

Yours very truly,
Elspeth J. Nickle

Honourable Kyle Fawcett, Miinster of Environment, AERSD
Craig Johnson, Fisheries, Blairmore, AERSD
Matthew Coombs, Fisheries, Blairmore, AERSD
Terry Clayton, Fisheries, Lethbridge, AERSD
Emeric Janssens, Fisheries, Lethbridge, AERSD
Paul Christensen, Fisheries, Calgary, AERSD
Sara Burnstead, Fisheries, Calgary, AERSD
Jennifer Earl, Fisheries, Cochrane, AERSD
Bev Yee,  Assistant Deputy Minister, Integrated Resource Management Planning Division, Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, AERSD
Tim Juhl, Timber, Blairmore, AERSD
Rupert Hewison,Timber, Blairmore, AERSD
Craig Harriott, Timber, Blairmore, AERSD
Mike Taje, Land Use, Blairmore, AERSD
Leo Dube, Wildlife Management, Lethbridge, AERSD
Greg Hale, Wildlife Management, Pincher Creek, AERSD

Bridget Pastoor, MLA, Lethbridge East
Greg Weadick, MLA, Lethbridge West
Danielle Smith, Wildrose Party Leader
Mr. Joe Anglin, Wildrose Environment Critic
Mr. Pat Stier, MLA, Livingstone-Macleod
Raj Sherman, Alberta Liberal Party Leader
Laurie Blakeman, Alberta Liberal Party Environment Critic
Brian Mason, Alberta New Democratic Party Leader

Shannon Frank, Oldman Watershed Council, Executive Director, Lethbridge.
Katie Morrison, Conservation Director, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - Southern Alberta
Karsten Heuer, President, Yellowstone-to-Yukon Initiative
Leanne Elias, Field Notes Collective
Lorne Fitch, Wildlife Biologist
Justina C. Ray, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, Executive Director and Senior Scientist