July 21, 2021
By Jim McLennan
It’s a topic that carries its own sense of tradition and thrives in folklore, especially through song: “It’s dark as a dungeon, way down in the mine;” “You load sixteen tons and what do you get?” and perhaps most poignantly, from John Prine: “And daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the green river where paradise lay? Well, I’m sorry my son, you’re too late in asking. Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
The expansion of surface coal mining in Alberta is Canada’s Pebble Mine issue. It’s a fly-fishing issue to be sure, but it’s much more than that. It’s something that threatens the water, air, soil, and parts of the Rocky Mountains themselves.
Fly Fisherman readers have seen many times the attraction of Alberta’s wild trout streams portrayed here. Many of you have fished these streams—the Oldman River, the Crowsnest River, the Livingstone River, the Highwood River, the Ram River—and many more hope to fish them in the future.
The headwaters of these streams and dozens more lie in the Rocky Mountains, along the Continental Divide that forms the border between Alberta and British Columbia. The streams flow eastward through the foothills, and the major arteries in these systems—the Oldman, Bow, and Red Deer rivers—leave Alberta, and move into Saskatchewan and ultimately north to Hudson’s Bay.
In western Alberta much of this water can be accessed on “crown land,” a term designating land open to the public. Road access is somewhat limited compared to other trouty areas in the West, but much of the best fishing is readily available to anyone who wants to walk. The mountain and foothill areas of these streams carry wild and native westslope cutthroat and bull trout, mountain whitefish, and rainbow trout.
In 1976, after nearly six years of study and public consultation, the Progressive Conservative government of Alberta put in place a forward-thinking official “Coal Policy” that protected specific sensitive parts of Alberta’s foothills and mountains from future surface coal mining. That all changed with the stroke of a pen in May 2020, when the current United Conservative government of Alberta unilaterally rescinded that policy, thereby removing the restrictions and protections, and opening 3.7 million acres (an area about half the size of Vancouver Island) to open-pit strip mining, including mountaintop-removal mining (which is just what it sounds like). Coal leases totaling more than 12,000 acres are now held by foreign (mostly Australian) mining companies in an area from near the U.S. border with Montana to the town of Hinton in west-central Alberta.
Preliminary exploratory work has already begun, and construction of roads and drilling pads is in progress near the Crowsnest Pass, the epicenter of Alberta’s fly-fishing community and culture. Increased surface coal mining threatens the health of the nearby trout streams as well as farms, ranches, and communities downstream—directly by way of contamination of the water and increased demand for water by the mining industry, and indirectly through irreparable damage to the land itself.
It’s not just what happened that is wrong, but also the way it happened. The rescission of the Coal Policy was announced the Friday afternoon of the first long weekend of summer in late May, a tactic used when governments want to make announcements they hope no one will notice. But people noticed. They noticed it was rescinded with no public consultation or input from environmental experts, tourism representatives, the scientific community, or First Nations. Then they found out that the government’s Tourism Minister Tanya Fir and Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon—yes, the officials in charge of tourism and the environment—both had sent letters of support to Australian coal companies in late 2019. The government advised the coal companies that prohibitive restrictions would soon be lifted, and encouraged them to invest in Alberta.
I suppose it’s not quite accurate to say that no consultation occurred. The Alberta Coal Association was consulted, and through these letters of invitation, foreign coal companies were invited into the loop of communication six months before Albertans found out the deed had been done.
Once the way had been cleared for expansion of mining, a YouTube video was posted in September, 2020 by Montem Resources, one of the companies lusting over Alberta coal, which contained this quote from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney: “We have been clearing the way of regulatory hurdles. We may see multi-billion-dollar capital investment in new coal mines in the (Crowsnest) Pass. We want to move those potential coal mines ahead as quick as we can.” To see the full presentation, visit youtu.be/nlRNYQMfZaQ
Hundreds of thousands of Albertans felt deceived and betrayed, fearing for the future of the wildness and wilderness that have defined the province since its inception. “Trust the process,” they were told. Yet the principles of protection that were formerly part of the process had been removed by the pro-coal United Conservative government. Unrelenting waves of phone calls, emails, letters, and social media posts from environmentalists, nearby communities, print and broadcast press, First Nations groups, ranchers, fly fishers, hunters, and the public at large came, demanding reinstatement of the 1976 policy.
Mines Need Water
Trout need water; open-pit mining uses water—a lot of water. From The Narwhal: “But in addition to opening up protected areas to mining, the Alberta government is also proposing a plan that would allow it to give away some water allocations, including some in the headwater tributaries of the Oldman River, to coal companies. Under the proposed changes, billions of litres of water could be made available to coal companies—for free. And that, experts say, would come at the expense of local communities and wildlife.” According to aquatic ecologist David Mayhood, “ . . . there is no way to withdraw water from those headwaters without negatively affecting bull trout and cutthroat trout critical habitat, which would be illegal and subject to very severe penalties under the federal Species at Risk Act.”
Considering that water in the Oldman system is already in short supply and over-allocated, water withdrawal is a significant issue on its own.
Retired biologist Richard Quinlan of Lethbridge, Alberta perhaps summarizes it best: “Simply put, surface mining and protection of headwater streams are incompatible in mountain landscapes, such as in the Crowsnest Pass. One excludes the other.”
After the negative press coverage and unprecedented bombardment on social media, the provincial government made a surprise announcement on February 8, 2021.
They promised the 1976 coal policy would be reinstated, and Energy Minister Sonya Savage, making the announcement, said “Albertans have spoken loud and clear, and we have heard them. Not only will we reinstate the full 1976 coal policy, we will implement further protections and consult with Albertans on a new, modern coal policy. Alberta’s government is absolutely committed to protecting the majestic Eastern Slopes and the surrounding natural environment.”
This sounds like a win for the fly fishers, hunters, and ranchers who depend on this landscape, and perhaps it is. But skepticism is justified. In a Facebook Live session on Feb. 3, Premier Kenney made this bewildering statement: “There are people saying our government repealed the 1976 Coal Policy . . . We did no such thing.” Yet on Feb. 8 his own energy minister reinstated the policy.
Savage’s announcement declared that future exploration would be paused until public consultation takes place, and that mountaintop removal mining will not occur. But coal leases granted prior to the rescission, as well as those granted during the period of rescindment, are still in place. Those deals are done. Exploratory work continues on six different coal leases, involving the construction of roads and drilling pads. And there was no mention of the water use in her announcement. Resource law expert at the University of
Calgary, Nigel Bankes, declared, “This is not reinstatement; it is reinstatement minus what has happened since June 1.”
There are enough loopholes, ambiguities, and gray areas in the reinstatement announcement that many qualified observers believe it to be a bait-and-switch or a shell game, and expect the government to exploit these loopholes to promote and allow expansion of surface mining. So perhaps this was a win in the first skirmish, but future engagements are likely.
Expansion of coal mining in Alberta is supported by some residents in the towns of the Crowsnest Pass, Blairmore, Coleman, Frank, and Hillcrest, where coal mining has a long history. It is opposed by hunters and fishermen, a growing number of nearby towns and municipalities, and by proponents of and participants in the tourism industry (including fly shops, guides, and outfitters), who correctly believe that sustainable tourism delivers far greater economic benefit to Alberta than coal. First Nations and ranchers also oppose expanded mining and have launched legal challenges.
It would not be completely accurate to say that fly fishers are leading this fight; that would dismiss the efforts of many other people who share concern and outrage without having waded and cast in these waters. But it would be completely accurate to say that many of the leaders are fly fishers, including the mayor of the town of High River, town councilors, writers, and investigative journalists.
Many years ago I heard multi-decade Fly Fisherman editor and publisher John Randolph deliver a speech to a gathering of fly fishers in Toronto. My recall of much he said has been eroded by the coarse grit of time, but I have not forgotten what he said regarding current and future threats to the health of our land and water: “Victories are temporary. Defeats are permanent.” It stands today as both an observation and a warning. And for this issue in Alberta and other issues in other places, two lessons emerge. First, that educated public voices raised to a common objective can have results, and second, that we must remain forever, constantly vigilant.
For ongoing information about this issue, follow the “Protect Alberta’s Rockies and Headwaters” Facebook page. Visit and subscribe to the independent online investigative journals, The Tyee, and The Narwhal. Kevin Van Tighem has become a point man for this issue. He is an outdoorsman and naturalist with impeccable credentials. Follow his Facebook page, along with that of Bruce Masterman, longtime Alberta fly fisher and writer, and vocal councilor in the town of High River.
If you’ve fished or spent time in Alberta or if you’d like to in the future, add your voice to those opposing open-pit coal mining in Alberta’s trout country. For a summary of the situation, with frequent updates and specific suggestions on ways you can participate and make your opposition known, visit protectalbertawater.ca and mountainsnotmines.ca
Jim McLennan is a longtime Fly Fisherman contributing editor, musician, and author of several books, including Trout Streams of Alberta and the award-winning Blue Ribbon Bow. He was one of the first guides on the Bow River, opened Calgary’s first fly shop, Country Pleasures, and with his wife Lynda teaches private and group fly-fishing schools in Turner Valley, Alberta (mclennanflyfishing.com).