Cumulative Effects of "Business as Usual" Overlapping Land Uses in the Ghost River Watershed, Alberta. Phase I. Business as Usual

The Ghost River basin of Alberta’s East Slopes supplies approximately ten percent of the water flowing into the Bow River upstream of Calgary, Alberta1, making it a vital link in the supply of abundant clean water to Calgarians and other downstream users. "Much of the area is of high scenic value and is heavily used for recreation and tourism."

Society is increasingly aware of how our rivers, and the landscapes that support them, deliver not only water, but a suite of societal and ecosystem services which are needed to sustain our quality of life. Eastern Slope watersheds, such as the Ghost, supply diverse recreational needs, timber products, energy resources, support biological diversity and provide ecosystem services such as carbon storage, drinking water and flood control. Human land use development and recreational activities can potentially reduce the effectiveness of these valued services through incremental negative impacts on natural processes. Reductions in the ability of natural systems to provide clean water to downstream communities, such as Calgary, results in an increasing need for water treatment infrastructure and associated monies. Such costs are passed onto consumers through increasing taxes and metered water costs. As demonstrated in other geographies, the significant burden on downstream tax payers for potable drinking water can be reduced through the effective management of headwater areas rather than building and maintaining increasingly larger and more costly water treatment facilities.

To support their vision of preserving and enhancing the integrity of the ecosystem functions in the Ghost watershed, the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society (GWAS; sponsored a quantitative assessment of how past, current and future cumulative impacts of land use on multiple-use forest reserve and private lands within the Ghost-Waiparous watershed could potentially affect sustainability of forests, water, wildlife and recreational resources (Phase 1). The GWAS engaged ALCES Landscape and Land-use Ltd. (ALCES© Group; to conduct this initial assessment. A second phase is planned which will assess the impact of best management practises and alternate planning, alternative economic instruments and policy regimes on ecological and recreational metrics reviewed in the Phase 1 report.

The Ghost Watershed Cumulative Effects Assessment used the ALCES© computer simulation model, field research and review of the best available data and literature sources to complete this assessment. Major land uses such as forestry, recreation, energy, residential and agricultural development were analyzed to determine their impact on selected watershed indicators including; an index of relative water quality, forest age, forest fragmentation, grizzly bear mortality index, index of native fish integrity, recreational opportunity, and timber harvest. The analysis was accomplished by exploring two scenarios:

1. Range of Natural Variation (RNV): ALCES© computer simulations demonstrated the natural variation of selected indicators on a simulated Ghost River watershed without modern human activity or infrastructure. In this project, RNV values provide a plausible theoretical range of natural variation against which current and future simulated indicator performance can be assessed.

2. Business as Usual" Forecast: Human population, recreational visitation, and land use development were simulated 50 years into the future to explore likely consequences in the performance of selected environmental indicators, recreational opportunity metrics, and timber harvest using conservative estimates of future land use growth rates and impacts.

Compared to RNV, past and current land use activities have caused a significant reduction in simulated and recorded performance of selected ecological indicators, including grizzly bear mortality index, relative water quality, integrity of native fish communities and recreational value of the landscape for non-motorized users. This declining trend is simulated to continue into the future assuming current management regimes and recreational activities characterize future practices. Off-highway recreational vehicle use, forest harvest and a high density of linear features were found to have the greatest potential negative effects on the selected indicators.

A water quality study of Waiparous Creek, Fallentimber Creek and the Ghost River attributed a 10-fold increase in sediment loading in Waiparous Creek to off-highway recreational vehicle (OHRV) activity.4 Our simulation modelling identified transportation networks, multiple use recreation trails (mostly used by OHRVs) and forestry operations as the largest potential contributing causes of current and future decreases in relative water quality. For the purpose of this study, relative water quality is an index that includes relative loading of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Based on GIS analysis of 2007, SPOT5 satellite images, the study area has approximately 2,780 km of linear features with an average landscape edge density of ~5 km/km2 (extrapolated values).5 During field assessments in 2010, 27 of 29 (93%) of linear features and trails examined showed recent OHRV use.6 Only 2 of 29 (7%) of the trails and linear features examined were posted with signs indicating they were open for motorized recreation. High density of linear features combined with active motorized use may negatively impact sensitive wildlife species such as grizzly bear and native fish.7,8 The simulated elevated grizzly bear mortality index for the study area9 suggests that grizzly bear populations may be challenged to persist given the levels of current and future projected activities relating to resource extraction and motorized recreation (Figure 25).

The health of native fish communities, as modelled using the simulated indicator "Index of Native Fish Integrity,"10 has declined significantly below RNV over the past several decades. This model result suggests that fish community structure and fish age class distribution may have changed significantly and sustaining a healthy native fish community in this basin may be challenging.11 The key land use elements affecting the fish index in the Ghost River Basin include human density, road density, and motorized trail density.

The forest age class structure of Ghost River basin is most influenced by the additive effects of fire, insects and logging; the higher the rate of logging, insect infestation and fire, the younger the forest. Current and future forestry practices will likely continue to transform the age class of the commercial forest toward younger trees. If current background fire, insect, and forest harvest rates continue, young forests under 40 years old, and clearcuts, forests under 20 years old, are simulated to become the dominant features of the forest mosaic. Old growth forests, defined as greater than 100 years old, will therefore become a progressively smaller component of the forest landscape.

The transformation of the forest landscape toward younger forests stands may adversely affect wildlife species that require old-growth forests12,13,14,15 and may potentially erode the recreational value of the region for hikers, equestrian users, motorized off-highway enthusiasts, and others.

Using simple economic relationships, recreational use of the landscape was modelled and estimated to have higher dollar value potential than timber harvest.

The combined results of ALCES© simulations, as well as field observations, and literature reviews, were used to identify possible environmental and sustainability concerns, potential areas of conflict between resource users, and to highlight potential strategies for mitigation and priorities for change. For example, literature review and data from field visits combined with simulation results suggest the need for more effective enforcement of OHRV regulations as a strategy to help maintain or restore key environmental indicators and recreational opportunities for non-motorized users.

This cumulative effects assessment evaluated the implications of business-as-usual land use practices on selected biodiversity indicators, landscape metrics, recreational resources and relative water quality on a regional scale, applicable to the entire study area. As such, these analyses are not intended to provide local-scale, tactical-level simulation results. Our model simulations suggest that basin-scale monitoring of biodiversity, hydrology, water quality and recreation may be necessary to enhance the understanding of potential trade-offs related to land use in the Ghost watershed, and to evaluate specific management strategies and best practices.

Many of the environmental, social and economic challenges detailed in this report are not unique to the Ghost Watershed in Alberta. Many Albertans and government officials recognise that current and past land-use management activities are not meeting societal needs with taxpayers often unnecessarily paying the price for inadequate land-use practises and management. "If we want our children to enjoy the same quality of life that current generations have, we need a new land-use system."21 Concern by current visionaries has prompted the passing of progressive legislation (the Alberta Land Stewardship Act) and the creation of the Alberta Land-use framework to begin addressing these challenges.

Additionally, "In 1992, at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio, consumers, environmentalists, labour unions, industry representatives and First Nations came together to encourage tougher government regulations for forests. When this was not achieved, they conceived of voluntary forest certification as a market-based mechanism for ensuring healthy  forests and strong communities." This resulted in the creation of such organizations as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and others which have effectively used market driven economic instruments to reward forest companies for sound timber management.

"Consumers are increasingly concerned about the impact of their decisions on the environment and communities. Progressive companies are addressing this concern by verifying that the forest products they purchase carry the FSC logo, demonstrating that they come from healthy forests and strong communities. Thousands of companies specify and buy FSC certified wood and paper products."

Currently forty five companies operating on over forty three million hectares of Canadian forests are FSC certified. However, Alberta Pacific Forest Industry is the only forest company in Alberta at this time which holds FSC certification.