Humans have been exploiting western Canada ’s abundant natural resources for 10,000 years. Indigenous people hunting bison obviously had little effect on ecological integrity, but over time, the eradication of the species by white settlers and the clearing of land for agriculture did. Today, it is minimizing the effects of logging operations and the fossil fuel industry, global warming, and development within national parks that are hot-button environmental issues in the region.
The issue of forestry management in western Canada is very complex, and beyond the scope of a guidebook. In British Columbia , where a couple of mega-companies control an industry worth $17 billion annually to the local economy, many forestry decisions have as much to do with politics as they do with good management of the natural resource.
The most talked about issue is clear-cutting, where entire forests are stripped down to bare earth, with the practice in old-growth forests especially contentious. The effect of this type of logging goes beyond just the removal of ancient trees; often salmon-bearing streams are affected.
Clayoquot Sound is synonymous with environmentalists’ fight against the logging industry. The sound is home to the world’s largest remaining coastal temperate forest. Environmentally friendly options are practiced, with companies such as the Eco-Lumber Co-op selling wood that is certified as being from responsibly managed forests.
You see the extent of logging through British Columbia when you arrive, but visit Google Maps (http://maps.google.com ) and click on the Satellite link. Then zoom into British Columbia—northern Vancouver Island is a good example—to see just how extensive the clear-cut logging is.
The oil and gas industry is worth $6 billion annually to the British Columbia  economy, but that’s just a drop in the ocean compared to neighboring Alberta . But along with all the money comes a number of environmental issues, none more talked about than the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which are absorbed by the air, and as a result contribute to global warming.
Government and industry work together closely to reduce emissions, mostly through modern technologies. Traditional techniques such as using sulfur from sour gas wells to make fertilizer are being joined by radical new ideas. Of these, one of the most interesting is the capture of carbon dioxide at its industrial source, from where the emission is compressed and then injected under the ground into depleted oil and gas reservoirs.
The use of alternative, non-polluting “green power” is increasing exponentially. Almost 90 percent of power used by Alberta government facilities comes from renewable sources such as the sun and wind, and interest-free loans are offered for municipalities to become energy efficient. As elsewhere in the world, it is usually only when the ecology of somewhere special is threatened that the public hears about it. Development of an open pit mine at northern Alberta’s McClelland Lake Wetlands, once considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site classification, is one such issue.
Environmental issues within Canada’s national parks are an ongoing hot topic, with the mountain parks of western Canada the center of most debate. On the surface, the commercialism within national parks seems to work against the mandate for their existence, but because they have grown from what were originally money-making exercises, the situation is unique.
It is also important to remember that 100 years ago the parks were home to logging and mining operations and that wardens were directed to “exterminate all those animals which prey upon others.” It wasn’t that long ago that park lakes were stocked with nonnative fish for the pleasure of anglers, and still today wildlife is “managed” to some degree by relocating troublesome bears and moving elk away from population centers.
The town of Banff , the largest urban center in any national park in the world, is center of much debate about development within Canada’s national park system. The town does have a good reason for its existence—serving the needs of up to 50,000 visitors daily. Along with obvious amenities such as accommodations and restaurants come needs such as a sewage plant, municipal infrastructure, schools, a hospital, and all the businesses you would expect to find in a mid-sized town.
But you can also park in a multistory car park, go to Starbucks, get a tattoo, buy a bearskin rug, and sleep in a chain motel (obviously I’m not recommending this as an itinerary)—all within a national park. Many visitors only see the commercialism along Banff Avenue, but balancing human-use issues with the protection of the mountain ecosystem is behind decisions such as capping future development, closing the Banff airstrip and buffalo paddock, and restricting the use of mountain bikes on some local trails.
Farther afield, the need to protect wildlife has lead to speed restrictions and closures on roads passing through critical habitat, access to some areas of the backcountry has been curtailed, ski resorts only offer limited summer activities, and in some cases, such as in Kootenay National Park , accommodations in wildlife corridors have been expropriated.
For more information on any of these issues, contact the following local environmental organizations: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (www.cpaws.org ), Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.ca ), Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (www.spec.bc.ca ), and Valhalla Wilderness Society (www.vws.org ).