By Submitted Article on July 3, 2020.
Fourteen years ago – back in 2006 – I discovered what appeared to be Alberta’s largest known population of a big, rare (in Alberta) orchid. The showy species: mountain lady’s slipper. The blooming orchids – there were hundreds of them – were concentrated within a relatively small area, high on the steep slopes of a mountain in the headwaters of the Crowsnest River.
Concurrent with my discovery of the orchids was a devastating second observation: The rare plants were being excavated by dirt bikers and other off-road users. These people, far from roads, had used powerful engines and churning wheels to excavate up-slope trenches that culminated in arrays of high-marking scars on the steep ramparts of Tecumseh Mountain. The land-gouging scars extended into the population of mountain lady’s slippers where dead orchids lay in excavated ruts.
I wrote to the Government of Alberta (GoA) staff responsible for managing the area, apprising them of the situation and the acute need to protect the watershed, the orchids, and the area’s other rare-in-Alberta plants. (I’d previously written to the same people to describe the same area as Alberta’s rarest and most threatened forest community, home to Canada’s easternmost western red cedars and other, even rarer, Alberta tree species.)
Since 2006, I’ve written many times to GoA staff to describe and document the plight of the orchids – and the watershed – and done this, typically, after returning from annual hikes that provided me with updated information. What has the GoA accomplished during the past 14 years? Nothing that’s apparent, and certainly nothing that’s stopped the shocking, ongoing abuse. It grows worse with each passing year.
My most recent hike to the described mountain lady’s slippers: June of this year (2020).
What I saw was appalling. The damage that’s been inflicted on the area since 2006 is almost impossible to comprehend. The situation is deplorable. Deep erosional scars now extend kilometres beyond the damage initially reported.
Dirt bikers have excavated trenches far above those seen in 2006 and, within the surrounding forest, created a maze of additional erosional scars that have caused countless truckloads of sediment to wash downslope into the extreme headwaters of the Crowsnest River. Dozens of rare mountain lady’s slippers, other flowering plants, and small trees have been killed.
The area of wanton off-road abuse on Tecumseh Mountain’s flanks extends upward through other rare wildflower populations, stands of endangered whitebark pine, and across fragile alpine meadows. The scene, typical of public lands in the area, suggests the GoA, instead of acting to protect the environment, has, instead, sanctioned its destruction.
An added concern: Alberta recently announced a change in restrictions on development of coal resources in southwestern Alberta. This further opens the door to watershed-degrading exploration and fast-tracked proposals for open-pit coal mines in the headwaters of the Oldman River.
My most recent hike into the aesthetically and ecologically compromised headwaters of the Crowsnest River exposed me to the beauty of rare orchids É and to a landscape ripped, torn, and bleeding. It’s a land where endangered trees survive by happenstance, where rare amphibians such as long-toed salamanders can occasionally be found in roadside ruts, and where small populations of threatened native trout cling to existence in isolated, degraded streams.
Today, I look through tears at the storied headwaters of the Crowsnest and Oldman rivers where once, and not too long ago, I saw what I thought was an indelible high-country brand of – forever beautiful – drop-dead gorgeous intrigue and sustained ecological diversity.
Looking past the described mayhem, here are the faces – think of them as battlefield survivors – of a few Crowsnest Pass orchids found during my recent hike (see accompanying photos).
David McIntyre lives on the land he loves in the storied headwaters of southwestern Alberta’s Oldman River. He has passionate interest – and knowledge – in diverse natural history disciplines, and is a strong advocate for the long-range economic and ecological worth of intact landscapes. David holds a MSc from the College Of The Environment, University of Washington, and, for decades, led multi-day study tours for the Smithsonian Institution – via hiking and whitewater rafting trips – throughout the U.S. West and the Canadian Rockies.