Big footprint: Study finds Alberta leads in disturbing natural landscape


EDMONTON – A national study suggests that Alberta has disturbed more natural landscape than any other province.

The analysis by Global Forest Watch adds that Wild Rose Country also has two of the three areas in Canada where the rate of disturbance is the highest.

“There were at least three major hotspots, two in Alberta,” report author Peter Lee said Monday.

The report combines government data, satellite imagery and cropland maps to look at human intrusions in the last decade into all major Canadian ecozones. Those disruptions included everything from roads to seismic lines to clearcuts to croplands.

“We took all the available credible data sets that we could find and combined them all,” said Lee. “We ended up with what we believe is the best available map of human footprint across Canada.”

Alberta leads in the amount of land disturbed at about 410,000 square kilometres. Almost two-thirds of the province — 62 per cent — has seen industrial or agricultural intrusion.

Saskatchewan, at 46 per cent, is second among the larger provinces. Quebec comes nearest in area with 347,000 square kilometres.

The Maritime provinces actually have the highest rate of disturbance. The human footprint in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia is 94, 85 and 72 per cent respectively of each province’s total area. But those provinces are so relatively small that the actual amount of disturbed land is dwarfed by totals elsewhere.

In addition, when Lee compared the current map to one developed about 10 years ago, he found two of three areas where the rate of development was highest were in Alberta as well. One was in the oilsands region; the other along the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

The third area is in a heavily logged part of northern Quebec. New intrusion in northeastern British Columbia, where there is extensive energy development, is almost as heavy.

Lee said development in the three top zones is pushing into previously untouched land at the rate of five to 10 kilometres a year.

The report’s calculations include a 500-metre buffer zone, which corresponds to the distance animals such as woodland caribou tend to keep between themselves and development.

Duncan MacDonnell of Alberta Environment said the government has plans to set aside about 20 per cent of the remaining boreal forest, which covers the northern third of the province.

That includes about 20,000 square kilometres in the oilsands region. MacDonnell said Alberta plans to eventually combine old and new protected areas to create the largest connected boreal conservation area in North America.

Those plans haven’t been implemented and all are the subject of controversy with area aboriginals.

MacDonnell said the province is developing land-use plans for the entire province which are intended to balance pressures on the landscape.

Representatives from the federal government were not available for comment.

Lee notes his findings come at a time when Canadian and provincial policies on development are being increasingly scrutinized, whether they involve forestry, energy or agriculture. He said this sort of basic, common-sense data-gathering should be done by Ottawa.

“It’s those sort of general questions that the person in the street asks,” said Lee. “Where are all the disturbances in Canada? Where are the pristine areas?

“This is a simple monitoring analysis that should be done and could very easily be done by the feds … (but) they’re not doing it.”

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Big footprint: Study finds Alberta leads in disturbing natural landscape

  1. Yet in the latest issue of this same magazine, some fool thinks it was “good news” that the Board gave a thumbs up to the Northern Gateway Pipeline (with some conditions). The author must be an Albertan with income from the tarsands, a heavy investor in the tarsands or really doesn’t give a flying fig about the future of his country. Bring on the killer pollution as long as it fills my pockets with big bucks! Is that what the author really wanted to say? Go live in Beijing and give that environment a try – you might make a bundle but you’ll live in poor health and help dirty the rest of the world through the production of your foul air which helps kill off our rivers, stream, oceans, not to mention all the species (including humans) who need these resources to survive.

    • People are free to support Northern Gateway. That’s why we call Canada a democracy. I know progressives like Dr. Suzuki would like to imprison law abiding oil executives simply because of the product we sell, but that’s not the great nation we live in.

      Progressives, with their claimed penchant for diversity, will just have to get used to the fact that many Canadians hold views divergent from their own.

      • People are free to support Northern Gateway. That’s why we call Canada a democracy.

        Canada now is a democracy in name only. Just the way our fascist PM likes it.

        • Thank you for reminding us that many Liberals are crazy.

  2. I really doubt these studies. A higher percentage of Alberta is national parks then any other province in Canada.

    You can torque data to say anything you want it to say as it’s laughable to say that Saskatchewan, with just over 1 million people on its vast territory, is the second most disturbed landscape in Canada.

    • I don’t think the article said anything about population as a part of the study. The population figures were for reference only. Talk about trying to torque an argument.

    • Parks are not necessarily synonymous with undisturbed landscapes. Some of those Parks you’re talking about contain towns, highways and other facilities.
      I’d be surprised if Alberta and Saskatchewan weren’t high on the list. It hard to think of a larger ecosystem in Canada that’s been almost entirely destroyed than prairie grasslands, while the boreal forest is increasingly crisscrossed with seismic lines, roads and pipelines.

  3. Man made alterations of what I call the species’ forest can’t be good. A species’ forest is a forest of, by and for all the native plants, animals, fungi and soil microbes that occupy or have occupied that place. A species’ forest or species’ grassland are the healthiest places in the natural landscape. All acres can be returned. All can be saved if you believe in the species’ forest.

  4. Agriculture is, of course, the greatest disturber of natural ecosystems. But can we live without agriculture in our modern world? It is all well and good to wring our hands in horror at the “disturbance” of the grasslands and boreal forest but we still seem to want the products that are a result of that disturbance. It is ironic that Saskatchewan is seen as such a high disturbance province yet you can travel for miles without seeing another human being in the southern crop and pasture lands and even further in the north in the boreal forest areas. Data torqueing?? Maybe.