Voices of the Athabasca
Connie Bresnahan

I live near Hinton, at the upriver end of the Athabasca River Basin. It is a beautiful place to live, directly adjacent to the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, in the upper foothills where the Athabasca River leaves Jasper National Park on its long journey north as a tributary of the Arctic Ocean Drainage Basin.

We chose to live here - moving from Sherwood Park in 1995, mainly because we wanted our sons to have the opportunity to live in a rural environment with forests, wildlife, and outdoor recreation opportunities. The community of Hinton is dependent on resource extraction industry - it has a pulp mill, a sawmill, and in 1995, three coal strip-mines. There is a lot of community pride in the history of resource extraction, and the town has done pretty well despite the ups and downs of timber and coal prices. As a gateway community to the Rockies and Foothills, it is also a community with tremendous potential for tourism, recreation, and amenity-based migration - a place where people seeking a rural lifestyle and the beauty of the mountains choose to relocate.

In the late 90s the contentious Cheviot Mine Hearings were held in Hinton. Listening to the proceedings at the Hearings, I became very concerned with what I heard in the community. A lot of polarized and inflammatory rhetoric was rife in the meetings, coffee shops and grocery store aisles, and I wondered, where is the even-handed democratic discussion in this community of the very real environmental and social concerns and issues with this development? I sure didn't see it. In time, the Hearings were completed, the Cheviot Mine was given a go-ahead, but for me and many others, the whole divisive chapter pointed to a pressing need to increase ecological literacy and engage people in a more profound discussion about the ecological sustainability of the community and area.

With the vision of a founding group of like-minded people, the West Athabasca Watershed Bioregional Society (Athabasca Bioregional Society) was formed in 1997, and registered as an Alberta Society in 2001. Our intent was to foster bioregional (watershed) awareness and education of ecological realities using solid conservation science, but also to engage people to actively participate with environmental projects. In 2001, we decided to initiate a community creek restoration project - after all, we are bioregional watershed group... what could be a better fit? Further, we needed to demonstrate that a 'green' group could actually be value-added to the community (despite protests to the contrary).

In 2002, we began the process of making the Hardisty Creek Restoration Project a reality. At the beginning there was a lot of talking and meeting with potential partners, but by the end of the year the HCRP had a solid working partnership of stakeholders associated with the creek, the Foothills Model Forest (with the science and technical expertise for restoration), government agencies, and support from the Town of Hinton. In 2003 the HCRP was officially launched to commemorate UNESCO's International Year for Fresh Water. Since then, the project has successfully remediated three major barriers to fish passage, restored fish habitat in a 300 metre stretch of creek, and is now working on the remediation of three more fish passage issues and another 200 metres of instream fish habitat restoration. Along with all of this technical work, the public has been involved as volunteers with the restoration process, and schools and visiting resource management, college/university and other professional groups have been engaged in tours, field trips, and watershed education. Our watershed stewardship project has provided a conservation success story for our community, and is an example of what can be done by a little grassroots watershed group with a will to make a difference. You too can do it!

Through all of the efforts with the Hardisty Creek Restoration Project, the Athabasca Bioregional Society continued to work on other issues. The pressures of logging and oil and gas development and the resultant loss of habitat has caused the imminent extirpation of the Little Smoky Woodland Caribou Herd - a very special ecotype caribou highly sensitive to habitat fragmentation and loss. In 2005 we initiated a Citizens' Petition under the Species at Risk Act on behalf of the Little Smoky Herd. Many other large environmental organizations helped with this endeavor - but the herd is now under greater threat than ever and the real culprits: oil and gas and logging, are continuing their business in the Little Smoky habitat area. We will probably lose the herd - a tragic consequence of government inaction and industry's bottom-line approach to ecological concerns. Rampant oil and gas development is also making unprecedented impacts on groundwater and surface water sources in the headwaters of the Athabasca. The increase of excessive amounts of selenium into watercourses from coal strip mining is toxic to aquatic life. Loss of grizzly bear habitat continues as more and more access roads criss-cross the eastern slopes. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture.

It is a mess out there folks, and to date, there are no checks and balances on cumulative impacts in the headwaters of the Athabasca River. But, we aren't giving up! We are part of a global movement that is going on right now - where people of all traditions, nationalities, religions, spiritualities and convictions are making an effort to right the problems we collectively face. So let's get going!

I joined the Keepers of the Athabasca Watershed Council because the Keepers of the Water movement spoke to me. I feel deeply that there are Albertans everywhere looking for a way to make a positive difference in their communities - they are waking to the fact that we need to take care of our home - the real one - the ecological/natural one - before we can truly have a secure future for our children, grandchildren, and all the myriad life forms that travel with us doing their daily business of living on this good Earth. The Keepers speak to me because it is grounded in spirit - a way of recognizing the inherent divinity in all and giving us the heart and fortitude to carry on with the task at hand.

There is no more time to waste, the river and watershed need our help. It isn't impossible; it is a challenge, and whenever we feel beset with the complexity and magnitude of it all, just remember the beauty when the rains come in June, the yellow lady slippers bloom, and the great Athabasca runs deep and rolling on its long journey to the north.