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Tag: Environmental Concerns

Limber Pines: White pine blister rust is the greatest threat facing this iconic species of southwestern Alberta’s mountains and foothills.

Thin green line: teaming up to save limber pines

Imagine driving to Beauvais Lake Provincial Park or west along Highway 3. Now imagine that only one in every 10 limber pines remains. “Alberta is at risk of losing nearly 90 per cent of its healthy limber pines in the next 100 years,” says Jodie Krakowski, Whitebark Pine Ecosystem of Canada director.

White pine blister rust is the greatest threat facing this iconic species of southwestern Alberta’s mountains and foothills. The fungus (Cronartium ribicola) that causes the disease was introduced into North America a century ago and has spread widely since. This devastating disease is fatal to all except a few naturally resistant trees. These trees are rare though.

Conservation specialists from government departments and agencies, non-profit organizations and industry have identified hundreds of the very best wild trees with natural disease resistance in Alberta to become a genetically diverse, well-adapted foundation for recovering this endangered species. 

The limber pine faces a range of other threats, too. Climate change, mountain pine beetle, human development, and increasing fire size and intensity after decades of suppression all add insult to injury in the fight to hold the thin green line.

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If these trees are lost, ripples will be felt throughout the ecosystem. Their absence will impact plants and animals throughout the landscape.

Limber pine seeds are a vital food for squirrels, bears and birds, including Clark’s nutcracker, a jay which relies heavily on the seeds to garner energy for successful breeding.

Shade from limber pines slows snowmelt in the mountains, sustaining and cooling streamflow in important fish habitat. The tree roots anchor fragile, steep soils against heavy rains and wind.


Also read | Wildfire safety procedures from AltaLink


Protection and restoration efforts are underway to reverse the decline of this unique species. Organizations like the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation of Canada, Parks Canada and the Government of Alberta are working together to support the limber pine and ecosystems they call home, and these efforts must continue long into the future.

Krakowski notes that a seed planted now takes 50 years to start producing its own seeds, so restoring limber pine ecosystems will take generations.

The core of the Government of Alberta Recovery Plan  is to build up natural genetic disease resistance, so more and more trees survive blister rust and spread their resistant seeds.

Aerial view of the Cowley Lions Campground on the Castle River in southwestern Alberta

Trained teams find these rare trees. After climbing to the treetops to collect cones, scientists send the precious seeds to get tested for disease resistance. The winners, or most resistant seedlings, become the parents of future generations of seedlings grown in nurseries and planted in carefully selected sites. 

Provincial forest health staff help protect high-value trees where mountain pine beetles are a high risk. Partners also update maps of where limber pine grow so development projects can better avoid impacts. 

Take action

What can you do? First, report limber pine on your land through apps like iNaturalist to help improve the maps.

Needles grow in bunches of five and are three to nine centimetres (one to four inches) long. Trees are often bushy with upswept branches and are up to 15 metres (50 feet) tall, but sometimes they grow along the ground or as low shrubs in very windy sites.

Oblong-shaped cones are eight to 13 centimetres (three to five inches) in length, turning from green to brown and opening when ripe. 

Deter cattle from grazing in limber pine stands if you can. These areas typically provide poor forage, and seedlings and saplings can’t survive heavy traffic or compacted soils.

Drift or wire fencing can guide animals along existing pathways toward better forage. Salt blocks and water can direct cattle to other areas for grazing and shade.

If cattle need to use limber pine areas, grazing a maximum 25 per cent of yearly forage production is recommended.

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Waterton Biosphere Region will be partnering with WPEFC to offer two workshops on beneficial management practices for grazing in limber pine stands, on June 12 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. (Beauvais area) and July 16 from 9 a.m. to noon (Waldron area).

Contact Thomas to register for a workshop.

For more information about the species and ongoing recovery efforts, check out limber pines.

Plain brown cardboard house with chimney but no windows or doors.

Argumentum ad hominem

“I suppose Fitch lives in a cardboard box and uses no modern amenities.”

This is the flavour of many responses to my concerns about land use and the impacts on the environment. It is a dismissive response to any thought of stewardship, conservation or environmental alarm.

By attempting to demean me and my argument by irrelevantly directing the attack at me, about me, it is hoped this will, in some way, diminish my point. 

These responses follow a similar, usually tendentious pattern. Any concerns over unsustainable logging will be met with a question of whether or not I live in a house made of wood.  If I write about issues with the petroleum industry, I will be pilloried for driving a car.

Exposing the problems in mining, especially coal, will bring forth a litany of vitriol about my use of steel (forged in furnaces burning the black stuff). Writing about our rivers receding into tiny trickles because of irrigation agriculture will result in being asked if I eat.

Presumably my legitimacy to speak on these issues can only be based on living in a cave, which I constructed with a sharp stick, wearing only animal skins, trapped with vines, and walking everywhere, barefoot, summer and winter. 

The use of argumentum ad hominem seems linked to those who really want to believe in some of the hype of prevailing land-use schemes. They are unwilling to buy anything that scrutinizes, objectively reviews or critiques their dreams. When you’ve drunk the purple Kool-Aid of growth at any cost, you are resolute in support even though the cost may outweigh the benefits.


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“In the land of the ostriches, the blind are king. When politicians [and individuals] bury their head in the sand, ignorance rules the country,” observed Erik Pevernagie, a Belgian writer.

Ignorance is sometimes a choice, of not wanting to know. It closes the ears, the eyes and the senses. The absence of knowing means you can ignore the existence of evidence, of fact. As Dave Christiansen, a colleague, often reminds me, “However well intentioned, speaking to the deaf is futile.” It is not the inability to see and to hear, it is the choice not to, and to react negatively to anyone attempting to provide a different message.

Observation and critical thinking aided by some understanding of ecological principles might provide us a better pathway forward than shouting at each other in capital letters. Don Gayton writes tellingly on this in The Wheatgrass Mechanism:

“It is our nature to be free-form, hot-dog, and eclectic; we live holism. So reductionist science, if nothing else, is probably a useful foil to lives full of concatenated events. A method to test things one at a time, as a check on ourselves.”

Evidence-based decision making about checks and balances, of ecological thresholds and cumulative effects, might help us stop racing to landscape red lights that never turn green.

In our rush to fill up the landscape with money-making schemes, we might pause long enough to take in some natural lessons. One is allelopathy. One plant species will suppress the growth of others due to the release of toxic substances.

It can include auto-allelopathy, where the first generation of a plant species inhibits growth and survival of the second generation. Plant examples from both strategies include kochia, knapweed and cheatgrass.


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Some land uses and their intensity resemble allelopathy. One is blasting the tops off mountains to expose a coal seam. This exposes many toxic substances like selenium, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Calcite and extreme amounts of sediment are also released. Mining essentially sterilizes a portion of the landscape and has negative impacts on watersheds downstream. The impacts of coal mining can persist for decades, if not centuries.

Rendering of essential watersheds unstable hydrologically by unsustainable logging practices has demonstrable negative impacts on native fish and wildlife populations, on flood risk for downstream communities and on both water quality and quantity for human populations. A landscape ravaged by clearcut logging no longer holds much appeal for outdoor recreation.

The positive feedback loop from continued (and expanded) petroleum extraction and use exacerbates climate-change impacts. These include flooding, drought, wildfires and excessive heat. All ratchet up concerns of our own survival.

Our inability to acknowledge the connections means we continue down a dangerous path. The legacy of land and water impacted by toxic petroleum development spills, exposed by Kevin Timoney in Hidden Scourge, is equally disturbing.


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These and many more issues need to be talked about, to have reasoned dialogue about what we expect our future to resemble, if we stick to current paths, or new ones. Name calling, personal attacks and nonsensical arguments will not solve the dilemmas inherent in our growth-at-all-costs model.

Taking a page from one of my detractors, the prospect of living in a cardboard box without any modern amenities isn’t a future I find solace in, as I’m sure some in the world who now live in those circumstances find. If we continue to trade off landscape integrity, resilience and the indicators of those essentials, like native fish, we might find ourselves in similar circumstances. 

We can be rich, at least in the short term, with large bank accounts and inflated stock portfolios. Or, we can be wealthy in the long haul with some of both, edging towards maintaining intact, diverse and essential landscapes and ecosystem services. As Don Gayton observes, we have to develop the sense and the courage to draw the line between the sustainable and the unacceptable.

Invective towards concerns on land-use issues may find favour with a few. But, as General Eric Shinseki said, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”


Shootin’ the Breeze welcomes submissions about local issues and activities. Personal views expressed in Mailbox articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Shootin’ the Breeze management and staff. 


Table setting of wedding venue — the Cowley Lions Campground Stockade near Pincher Creek in southwestern Alberta.