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Globe and Mail Shell's project: preserving backcountry:Environmentalists and energy companies don't often make good bedfellows…”: Monday, August 22, 2005




Monday, August 22, 2005 Updated at 3:44 AM EDT


Calgary — Environmentalists and energy companies don't often make good bedfellows, particularly in Alberta and especially when they've long butted heads over access to a valuable swath of Rocky Mountain wilderness. What a difference a study makes.


Roger Creasey, manager of ecosystem management at Shell Canada Ltd., sounds positively granola-loving when he talks about the future of a 1,000-square-kilometre piece of backcountry known as the Castle Carbondale region, tucked in the southwest corner of the province.


He complains about the lack of provincial government surveillance in the region, where off-road vehicles speed down trails that have been marked off-limits in a bid to protect the landscape.


He talks about his company spending big bucks to do seismic testing via helicopter instead of cutting new roads to do it more cheaply by land.


"This is an area that is experiencing a lot of pressures," according to Mr. Creasey, whose Calgary-based company is the dominant oil and gas player in the region.


"It's simply a fact of our population, the money we have, the recreational need. This is becoming the backyard for a very large population."


"We need to come up with a way to control things," he adds.


Joe Obad agrees. He is the conservation director for southwest Alberta with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which has been lobbying government for years to give the Castle region better protection.


The province's public lands policies include clauses geared to protect wildlife in the region, but "in practice these [policies] usually take a backseat to resource allocation and unenforceable access plans for recreationists," Mr. Obad says.


Now, Shell has joined CPAWS and the World Wildlife Fund in support of a new scientific study that is critical of government management in the area.


The report, which has been making the rounds in government but is only being made public now, finds environmental degradation, lack of government enforcement and lack of an overall land management plan to limit conflicts in the region.


For the first time, maybe -- just maybe -- the province will finally acknowledge that dramatic changes to land management are needed, Mr. Obad says.


"The challenges faced by decision makers on public lands are compounded when stakeholders dig in their heels and fail to give an inch," he says. "This project was risky for both Shell and CPAWS, but for progress to be made on public lands, risk and good faith are required."


The Castle area, which lies just north of Waterton Lakes National Park and just south of the Crowsnest Pass, has been the focus of fractious debate about access among environmentalists, recreational users and industry for years.


Until 1921, it was part of the national park, but when Ottawa changed the park's boundaries, this area was left to the province to manage. Now it's a provincial forest reserve that doesn't have the protection of a national or provincial park and is open to logging, energy exploration, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking and all-terrain vehicles.


But this narrow strip of forested land between the continental divide and the Prairies is also an important link for wildlife moving east-west between British Columbia and Alberta and north-south along the Rockies.


The 216-page report, written by Martin Jalkotzy of Calgary-based Arc Wildlife Services Ltd., concludes that human activity -- roads, industry and recreational activities, including a ski resort -- has contributed to the loss of "nationally significant wildland" and threatens the habitat for fish, frogs, toads, wolves, wolverines and grizzly bears.


Environmentalists, who have been saying that for years, are waging a battle over the planned expansion of the Castle Mountain ski resort, which is now caught up in the courts.


They have also complained about drilling in and just outside the area -- primarily to Shell -- where there is an estimated 400 billion cubic feet of natural gas. They have also angled to limit logging, which is now on the wane.


Historically, about one third of the area was old-growth forest, but now, old growth accounts for about 9 per cent of forested land.


The report concludes that the existing government management plan for the region -- designed circa 1985 -- is "not equipped to handle the demands that contemporary land use pressures are currently placing on the Castle Carbondale region."


The province has "missed opportunities" to resolve conflicts, has failed to use "specific, legally binding" management techniques and conducted "little to no enforcement" of rules in the region, the report finds.


"The impression is left that the Castle Carbondale can be everything to everyone," the report concludes.


The province, which is just starting to update its comprehensive land use policy, says it will take into account any report that it is presented with.


Mr. Creasey said all these years of fighting with conservationists hasn't done much to help the environment. Still, he understands if there are lingering suspicions about Shell's motivation in backing this report.


"I think if we can raise the issue and show that we can work together and collaborate, then government would want to be there with us," he says.


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