Over the years, Lorne Fitch received so many jars of jam from his mother-in-law that he thought they’d last him for the rest of his life. But she quit making jam and the supply ran out. There had been early warning signals. He could have shown restraint, learned to make it himself, given some thought to future jam-eaters, but he didn’t. A precious natural resource had disappeared. This anecdote sets the stage for a book celebrating the natural beauty of Alberta’s lands, rivers, and wildlife while warning readers we are at risk of losing them altogether.

Lorne Fitch is a retired provincial fish and wildlife biologist, a former adjunct professor with the University of Calgary, and co-founder of the riparian stewardship initiative Cows & Fish. Both sets of grandparents were homesteaders and he grew up on the family farm west of Red Deer. In Streams of Consequence: Dispatches from the Conservation World, Fitch shares his love of nature, describes the changes he has seen in 50 years of conservation work in Alberta, and outlines the choices that must be made in the future. He says, “I hope there is an appetite amongst Albertans (and others) for understanding the ecological crossroads we are at, and what needs to be done to retain our wild heritage.”

A Love of Nature

One of Lorne Fitch’s greatest pleasures is being outdoors. He describes a prairie river trip as an immersion into the ebb and flow of the river. “With days to spend, it is not a race but a relaxing luxury to absorb the river, its valley and the inhabitants. It is time well wasted. Sitting quietly, you can hear the rush of the nighthawk’s wings as it swoops to collect (hopefully) a biting insect. A walk might, for the observant, disclose a couple of cryptically coloured nighthawk eggs, laid on a bed of old gravels next to a teepee ring of rounded rocks. A fat bull snake, sunning on an outcrop, reluctantly squeezes itself into a crack in the rock to retain some privacy. Towards fall, when Canada geese are queuing up for migration, the quiet of a full-moon night might be shattered with constant goose music as they pile into quiet backwaters, disturbing those already slumbering.”

Fitch pays particular attention to the Eastern Slopes that “have been the source of water, delivered to three provinces, for millennia” as well as a shared backyard for Albertans to relax and explore. Fitch says, “No government should overlook or misjudge the sentiments of Albertans and our deep-seated appreciation of the Eastern Slopes. Anything that throws open the Eastern Slopes to destructive and unsustainable exploitation represents a serious violation of the public’s trust and a failure to properly steward these landscapes for the public good. The cumulative economic aspirations, the growing recreational pressures and the accumulated scars show that we cannot take the Eastern Slopes for granted any longer.”

A constant theme throughout the book is Fitch’s desire to protect wild places and wild creatures for future generations. One chapter includes a letter to his niece and nephew, wishing that they could see “trout swimming in water so clear they seem to float” or hear sage grouse on their strutting grounds. He believes it’s not too late to change directions and to ensure that there will be a future for our children. He says, “My instincts tell me we have exceeded some thresholds in Alberta, are advancing quickly on others, have no real remediation plan and are dealing with unrealistic expectations for returns from Alberta’s landscape and resources. If we can agree on that, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If we can’t agree, we will simply add more tunnel until the light goes out … No future is inevitable, but taking the future for granted, believing that it will mirror the past, is a gamble of monumental proportions and risk.”

A Drastic Rebalance

As was the case with the jars of jam, we think we have an abundance of wildlife and wild places in Canada, that one more mine or one more housing development won’t make a big difference. Lorne Fitch points out the fallacy in this argument: “A threshold is a line drawn in the sand, a boundary that science says is a stop sign. It’s a cliff edge or a border, not to be breached without consequences and repercussions. But the line seems so tenuous, innocuous or unbelievable that we cross it and redraw it a little further on to allow another wellsite, road or cutblock, or another degree of warming. Once we’re accustomed to crossing the line, it gets easier to redraw it again and again, for it seems that nothing catastrophic happens when it’s crossed. And often nothing does, initially. Too late, the effects become too clear to be ignored.”

Discussions around land use often focus on taking a “balanced approach”. Fitch says, “If the word balance was used to mean an equitable sharing of resources, landscapes or chocolate, it would be easier to swallow. The reality is that most of our landscapes and natural resources have already been developed, changed or in some way lost. If we have already converted 80 per cent of the natural world into some economic endeavour, it is disingenuous to claim that we are achieving balance as the remaining 20 per cent is carved up. We are not weighing two equal things.” He goes on to point out that “Life balances itself on a precarious ledge; through our actions we can nurture it or propel it off the edge … To restore function and wild creatures, a drastic rebalance is necessary.”

Down to Earth

Reading Streams of Consequence, it’s easy to imagine that you’re sitting down and having a conversation with a friend. The book is a series of short stories, and the examples are down to earth – sharing a chocolate bar with his brother, learning to drive a car, speed limits, and cruise control. The book is poetic but never overly sentimental, for example, “Short-horned lizards are harmless little creatures. They don’t ask for much – just a few acres of prairie badlands to call home. If anything, they should command a little respect, with their diet of acid-laden ants, and their ability to survive freezing. Any adaptation to survive the worst the prairie can dish out seems miraculous and something worthy of more study and of protection.”

The book documents successes as well as failures at living in harmony with nature. Fitch points to the success the Balog family have achieved in instituting better livestock management and in inventorying and helping to conserve and restore endangered species, explaining “the Balogs have figured out how to live on a piece of land and maintain a species at risk. In part, it is about caring. It is also about being receptive to new ideas and to the deliverers of new ideas. The family displays the essential elements of stewardship: ecological awareness, a strong land ethic, and actions appropriate for both today and tomorrow.”

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/48303780856

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