Author and Conservationist Kevin Van Tighem offers his perspective on this defining moment in history.
By: Jane Marshall
I was born and raised in Alberta. When life gets crazy and I need to re-set, I have always run to the mountains. They are there for me, grand, solid features that never let me down. I hike across their scree and sleep upon their flat benches. I ski their rolls and drop down their chutes. I sit in their forests and touch their mossy contours ever so gently, finding connection at some deep and mysterious level.
The mountains are a defining feature of Alberta — and of me, personally. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Mountains are part of Alberta’s pride and culture.
When I learned from a Facebook group called Protect Alberta’s Rockies and Headwaters (35.8 K and growing fast) that large swaths of the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains were going to be mined for coal, my heart fissured and questions erupted. How could anyone threaten the pinnacle of our province? Where would the mining take place? Aren’t our mountains protected? Who let this happen? And what exactly is open-pit coal mining?
I began poring through posts and educating myself on the issue. I came across Kevin Van Tighem, an Alberta born naturalist, conservationist, former Parks Canada superintendent, and author (Bears Without Fear, Heart Waters, and his most recent book Wild Roses are Worth It). Kevin has land near the Oldman River, a delicate headwater sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations now threatened by the coal projects. I wanted to reach out to Kevin for his perspective on this issue. He kindly agreed to an interview.
Conversation with Kevin Van Tighem
Kevin Van Tighem has Alberta roots extending back to 1875. He was born in Calgary and is one of 10 children, raised in a family that valued nature.
“Dad took us hunting and fishing in the foothills, from Crowsnest to Nordegg. We camped on forestry roads and hiked in remote places. It was a golden childhood, those summers in the foothills. That got me hooked on nature and wild Alberta,” he recalls.
Kevin studied botany and biology in University, merging academia with his love of the outdoors, then worked in conservation and landscape biology for National Parks. “I’ve had an entire lifetime of being saturated in and fed by those environments. They’re as much a part of me as my family. They ARE a part of my family.”
As a land owner of property on the Oldman River, he became a board member of a conservation group called the Livingstone Landowners Group. About five years ago, he heard about the now infamous Grassy Mountain coal mine proposal.
“We are downwind and downstream, so I began educating myself and quickly realized it was a huge deal. Then the 1976 coal policy was quietly revoked [in June 2020] and I was horrified. The coal policy had made it virtually impossible to coal mine certain categories of lands, but suddenly thousands of kilometres were open to being destroyed by open pit mining!”
Kevin, being a prominent conservationist and much-loved author, wrote an article for Alberta Views Magazine about coal mining:
The Plans to Strip-Mine Coal in the Mountains: A threat to the Eastern Slopes watershed
A big issue for Kevin is that the removal of the coal policy wasn’t done with proper consultation — with Indigenous people of the area or the rest of the province.
The proposed coal mine lease areas are on sacred Blackfoot territory. Thousands of years of Indigenous history are in jeopardy. So is the safety of the water that flows to millions of people downstream and the habitat of endangered species.
Kevin is impressed by how quickly the Facebook group Protect Alberta’s Rockies and Headwaters is growing. “It’s magical. Conservation issues are often ‘lonely,’ but this one is not! It’s a movement and is spawning activism. Albertans love the mountains and they are upset.”
Call To Action
I ask him what we, as people living in Alberta who love the mountains and want to protect them, can do.
“We must hold government to account. Make phone calls. Write emails and letters. Make it clear we aren’t going away and can’t be maneuvered into submission. Communicate at every level of government. This concerns the safety of everyone who drinks water. It affects tourism and those who love to recreate in our mountains. We can’t be complacent.”
- Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: https://pm.gc.ca/en/connect/contact
- Premier Jason Kenney: https://www.alberta.ca/premier-contact.cfm
Key Facts and Issues
Open Pit Coal Mining - What is the process?
- Timber is stripped from the mountains, then giant machines scrape away remaining vegetation and soil.
- Large quantities of rock are removed to access coal seams.
- Excess ‘waste’ rock leaches sulphates, nitrates and heavy metals such as arsenic and selenium into streams for decades.
- Toxins from the waste rock accumulate in aquatic habitats and poison fish and wildlife.
- The coal is used to fuel furnaces for steel production. It’s shipped overseas to steel mills and pours CO2 into the atmosphere.
- Most of the coal companies are from Australia.
- For a detailed study of selenium in water systems: Environmental hazard assessment of Benga Mining’s proposed Grassy T Mountain Coal Project by A. Dennis Lemly.
1976 Coal Policy - What is it?
It’s a provincial policy that limited or prohibited how coal mining could take place in certain areas of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains — about 1.4 million hectares of wilderness home to endangered species and delicate headwaters.
- In June 2020, the government rescinded the policy without consultation.
- After huge backlash, the government re-instated the policy (in February 2021).
- Read about the re-issuing of the coal policy here.
What Happens Now?
Even though the policy was reinstated, exploration is proceeding. There are over 200 km of new exploratory roads in SW Alberta and hundreds of new drill sites. Certain full-scale projects are still going ahead.
Learn More: Extra Reading
- Read Kevin Van Tighem’s Alberta Views article
- Read about the petition that got 18,000 signatures, CTV News: Petition asks Ottawa to review overall effect of expanded coal-mining in Alberta
Check out these Facebook Groups:
“It is the people’s right to have primitive access to the remote places of safest retreat from the fever and the fret of the market place and the beaten tracts of life.” Elizabeth Parker had it right. The mountains cannot be put back together. If we let industry destroy these ‘places of safest retreat,’ what will be left of the wild parts within ourselves?