There’s trouble brewing in the mountains and the foothills, as a recent policy change by Alberta’s government puts significant grazing land and water sources at risk, according to ranchers. In June, the Alberta government quietly rescinded a coal mining policy, shocking ranchers in southwestern Alberta.
Laura Laing and John Smith, who own Plateau Cattle Co., are directly affected by the elimination of the coal policy. Their grazing allotment is in the Mt. Livingstone range on the Oldman Watershed, just west of Nanton, Alta. It’s Category 2 land that has never been subject to open-pit mountain top removal coal mining — but will be now. The policy was rescinded without any public or stakeholder consultation, the ranchers add.
Smith’s family has been on the landscape since the late ’50s, which has been passed down to Smith as the third generation.
“We run five, six hundred head of cows and in a typical year we’ll send 160 head up to the mountains, so as everybody else knows in Alberta that have cows, you just don’t go out and find new grass overnight, especially grass that’s within an hour of your home place,” says Smith.
The cattle company has done different trials, weighing cattle as they go up to the mountains and when they come back, and the calves that come out of the grass from the mountains are always the biggest and the healthiest.
In the larger scale, the watershed feeds 43 per cent of irrigated land, and provides water for 2 million people. The effect of mining on this area, and all downstream users, would be detrimental. The water runs all the way to Hudson Bay, and as Smith notes, “it’s not something that should be toyed with.”
Whatever claims these mining companies make about restoring land to its original form, are hard to believe, the duo add. The concerns for settling ponds leaching selenium into the water supply is high — especially in valleys that are prone to flooding, like the flood in 2013. (Story continues below video)
“What the coal policy did was it said that if there was to be coal development throughout the eastern slopes, it was to all be done underground, because of the sensitivity of those watersheds,” says Laing. “With that policy removed, that removes that protection.”
The area of land that is subject to harm through this change in policy is 1,000 square kilometres — that’s about 247, 100 acres. A recent sale also puts parts of Kananaskis area at risk.
Moving forward, Smith and Laing have joined a group that will launch a judicial challenge against the government, along with Rocking P Ranch owners Mac and Renie Blades. Four First Nations are also filing judicial challenges similar to the ranchers’, on similar grounds, which have been stricken by the government.
A lawyer involved in the challenge firmly believes that the Kenney government has broken the law. It impacts more than just ranchers, it will affect all of southern Alberta and the users of water from this watershed. The best case scenario for the challenge is that the Coal Policy will be reinstated and open-pit mountain top removal coal mining stopped.
RealAgriculture has reached out to the Ministry of Energy for comment, with no response.