Temporal and Spatial Changes in the Natural Capital of the Upper Bow River Basin, Alberta, Canada

The watershed of the Upper Bow River is an internationally recognized icon of natural beauty which lies upstream of the burgeoning metropolis of Calgary and its surrounding bedroom communities. The Bow River watershed possesses an exceptional abundance of natural resources, including forests, grasslands, rivers, diverse flora and fauna, and majestic scenery. During the past several decades, a rapid increase in intensity of overlapping land uses has occurred within the watershed, as settlements, rural residential, croplands, forestry, livestock grazing, oil and gas extraction, hydro-electrical, hunting, fishing, and non-motorized and motorized recreation have all grown to satisfy an expanding human population and increasing regional, national, and international demand for renewable and non-renewable resources. Given the intensive pace of land use in this headwaters region and further downstream, it is not surprising that the Bow River is Alberta’s most regulated (dams, reservoirs) mainstem river, is fully allocated in terms of water use, and has many stakeholder communities concerned about water scarcity in a world increasingly shaped by climate change.

The historical management paradigm of the Government of Alberta for the East Slopes is best described as “multiple use”. This strategy reflects the belief that multiple overlapping land uses can co-occur without significantly compromising the performance of key ecological, social, and economic indicators. Increasingly, quantitative and subjective assessments by the scientific community and the public have shown that the laissez-faire nature of the government’s “multiple use” formula is no longer adequately providing multiple forms of services due to tradeoffs inherent between the uses. In 2011, the Phase 1 report of the Upper Bow River Basin examined the cumulative effects of “business-as-usual” (BAU) land uses and identified a number of challenges to maintaining acceptable performance levels of ecological, industrial, and recreation indicators. Projections using the ALCES landscape simulator (www.alces.ca) quantified past and potential future declines in water quantity, water quality, recreation potential, fish and wildlife indicators, timber supply sustainability, and agricultural land base. This was followed by Phase 2, which contrasted the BAU scenario to a suite of best management practices (BMP) intended to mitigate the adverse effects of land use on social, economic, and environmental indicators. Phase 1 and 2 reports can be downloaded from the ALCES website at http://www.alces.ca/projects.

In 2010, Action for Agriculture received funding for the Natural Capital Project (Phase 3) from the Bow River Basin Council, Government of Alberta, Royal Bank of Canada (Blue Water Project, Rocky View County, Calgary Regional Partnership, Hanen Society, Municipal District of Big Horn) to explore and assess temporal and spatial changes in the fiscal performance of natural capital accounts of the Upper Bow River Basin. The natural capital project contrasted both business-as-usual (BAU) and beneficial management practices (BMP).

The results of the analyses are clear and consistent with published literature. Historical land use trajectories have created significant benefits to classic economic performance indicators (GDP, employment, sector-specific revenue) while concurrently causing significant economic loss to natural capital accounts. It would appear that historical land use decisions have been made based on a priority focus on classical economic indicators with inadequate attention to their consequences to natural capital. Of the various forms of natural capital examined in this study, key losses to the following accounts have occurred as a result of historic and ongoing landscape transformation:

·      Accelerated runoff of precipitation to mainstem rivers and reduced recruitment into aquifers.

·      Increased surface runoff of sediment and nutrients to mainstem rivers, causing a reduction in surface water quality, which has in turn lead to greater dependency on costly technological solutions to make water potable for downstream users.

·      Reduced biotic carbon (vegetation, LFH, soil) because of intensive cropland agriculture (reduced soil organics), additive disturbances to forests (fire and logging), and transformation of natural plant communities to anthropogenic features (transportation, settlements).

·      Loss of food production potential because of historic incremental loss of cropland and grazing land to expanded urban footprint and rural residential developments.

·      Reduced tourism/recreation potential caused by a landscape that looks progressively less natural and has reduced ecological function.

Future simulations of the Upper Bow River Basin with the ALCES model under a “business as usual” (BAU) scenario indicates that these negative trends in natural capital are likely to continue, if not accelerate, in the next several decades. A comparison of BAU and BMP scenarios reveals that an alternative land use/landscape future is possible, one in which commodity production (crops, livestock, wood fiber, oil and gas, tourism, human population and residency) can persist and ecological functions are either maintained or improved. This improved option requires land managers in the Upper Bow River Basin to abandon the historic ad-hoc land use approach that has focused on individual projects and short periods of time. In its place would emerge a “management by objective” philosophy that would explicitly identify the desired future performance of ‘triple bottom line’ indicators (social, economic, environmental) and describe the specific combinations of land use in space and time that achieve these desired future conditions. In essence, we would be replacing an “everything, everyone, everywhere, all the time” land use ethic with one that fundamentally recognizes that landscapes and ecosystems have finite capacities of natural capital and commodity flow. Under this new paradigm, optimal land use plans would be devised and implemented that ensure sustained flow of natural capital through “meaningful” time (multiple generations). While some would argue this approach is an anti-business one, we would contend that it is decidedly pro-business but one in which economic performance would be more broadly defined and explicitly recognize the need to assess natural capital (water, air, land, biodiversity) as carefully as GDP, royalties, or employment.

This approach will not be easy – not for planners and not for the general public. It requires the full suite of stakeholders to discuss and define the desired future condition of the basin - what quantity and quality of commodities and services should the Upper Bow River Basin provide to future generations? Should the Upper Bow River Basin continue to produce food (crops, livestock), and if so, how much? If food production is a desired future condition, then we need to ensure our agricultural landscapes persist at an agreed-upon scale. Should the Upper Bow watershed support viable populations of endangered species such as grizzly bear? If so, then we must recognize the need to maintain appropriate area and connectivity of natural landscape where bear mortality is managed within an acceptable level. Is the production of timber and hydrocarbons part of the desired future of the Upper Bow River landscape? If so, how should these land uses be conducted to ensure that they do not compromise other desired indicators (water quantity, water quality, biotic carbon, recreation and tourism)? Should the Upper Bow River Basin be required to deliver clean water to Calgary and other downstream users? If so, then stakeholders must define a desired level of water quality and land managers must assess the consequences of each land use on movement of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and other contaminants. The benefits of best management practices on minimizing loss of water quality must be understood. Where helpful, and cost effective, these improved measures will need to be adopted.

This new management dialogue needs to transparently recognize that all land uses affect natural capital indicators and also other land uses. Based on human nature (or ‘loss aversion’ as understood in economics), it is highly likely that society will argue that the Upper Bow should continue to host the full suite of land uses it supports today. If so, stakeholders must have the insight, and fortitude, to make hard decisions about how much of the natural capital “pie” of the Upper Bow can be sliced up to each of the land uses of cities, acreages, croplands, irrigation, pasturelands, timber harvest, habitat for wildlife, and areas for tourism and recreation. Beyond the question of absolute allocation of landbase area, an important part of the answer lies in the adoption of best management practices. Reducing the total area of a land use is not the only management lever available to planners to mitigate adverse effects on natural capital. Once stakeholders embrace the importance of natural capital within a business context, it becomes possible to adjust tactical practices to minimize adverse effects while still ensuring an acceptable level of commodity production. This broadened perspective also allows for new business generation and diversification, as land uses can begin to offer a suite of products beyond traditional commodities, potentially diversifying into providing clean water, biodiversity, carbon credits, and aesthetically pleasing landscapes for tourism revenue.

This study identified several key examples of BMP that should be examined carefully by landscape planners, if natural capital is to be maintained or improved in the basin:

·      Urban settings such as Calgary and surrounding settlements should minimize future sprawl and adopt strategies that allow for greater amounts of mixed-use and population densification.

·      Rural residential area should be minimized, limited, or capped, as appropriate, and developed in a nodal fashion that minimizes its footprint and hence loss of natural landscapes, cropland, and pastureland.

·      Extensive agricultural practices are a preferred option to intensive agriculture on this fragile foothills region. Extensive cow/calf grazing operations that maintain or enhance native grasslands are more compatible with natural capital than intensive crop and livestock production systems. In addition, extensive livestock systems must improve their practices by reducing the frequency with which cattle enter streams, rivers and riparian habitat. Stocking rates, fencing, and grazing systems that encourage greater levels of soil carbon should be adopted, for example by rotating herds off areas with recent high grazing intensity.

·      Croplands should not continue to expand into remaining native grasslands or drain wetlands. Improved urban growth strategies that encourage cities to grow up, rather than out, reduce the impetus for cropland loss or displacement.

·      Commercial forestry is a land use that can affect large regions of Alberta’s foothills ecosystems. Current harvest and silvicultural practices prioritize wood production, often at the expense of wildlife habitat, water quality, water quantity, and biotic carbon. Suggested BMPs for the forest sector include: longer harvest rotations, increased residual green trees, improved road crossings, improved protection of riparian forests and ephemeral draws, and faster reclamation of in-block roads.

·      Not everyone thinks of recreation and tourism as a land use, but from the perspective of a land use analyst, these activities reflect a land use as any others. As increasing population size drives higher demand for recreation and tourism, the natural capital of landscapes can be compromised in many ways, including:

o   Increasing erosion of sediment caused by off-highway vehicles (OHV)

o   Loss of native vegetation and increased waste nutrient inputs caused by high recreational horse populations

o   Increasing mortality to predator species such as grizzly caused by adverse interactions with recreationalists

o   Increased longevity of linear features (access roads, seismic lines, pipelines) caused by recurrent use by recreationalists that impairs reclamation of these features

o   Increased human waste production (garbage, feces, urine) in backcountry settings where disposal facilities are not available

o   Like other land uses, the BMPs for recreation must focus on limits and distribution. Examples of solutions include:

§  Restriction of motorized OHV to dedicated and properly constructed OHV trail networks

§  Active reclamation of existing and future linear features created by industry such that edge density remains below a defined limit

§  Construction of human waste facilities in those portions of the basin where recreational activity is high and desired

Readers wishing to understand the individual best management practices in detail, and how they were evaluated in the ALCES Integrator simulation model, are encouraged to read the Phase 2 Upper Bow Basin Cumulative Effects report. This report can be downloaded from the ALCES website at: http://www.alces.ca/reports/download/126/UBBCES_Phase-1_2_Modeling_Report_Final_190511.pdf

The BMPs described above are an important, albeit incomplete, list of improvements to land use that will be needed to maintain or recover natural capital in the Upper Bow River Basin while also continuing a desired level of resource commodity production. Embracing these improved practices, and the concept of thresholds in terms of how much land allocated to each land use, will be a challenging conversation. All too often, land use sectors concede that there is an issue of degraded natural capital, only to frame the problem as one created by some land use other than their own. Acreage owners frequently blame forestry, forestry blames recreationalists, ranchers blame urban sprawl, recreationalists blame industry. Experienced land use analysts can detect when multi-stakeholder communities have collectively matured to a point where they want to constructively address the issue of overlapping land uses and conservation of natural capital. It occurs when their language reflects the understanding that all land uses create benefits, all create liabilities, ecological systems are finite, and land managers must devise land use plans that explicitly recognize these trade-offs. At this juncture, stakeholders begin to understand that there is no magical win-win-win solution, but rather a series of difficult, but informed, decisions that collectively create a landscape more capable of delivering the desired set of commodities and natural capital that provide the greatest benefits over time.

The new legislation of the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA), and the Alberta Land Use Framework (ALUF) it spawned, suggests that such an inclusive land use conversation is now beginning in Alberta. That is not to say that there have not been many Albertans in past decades that have implored the province to deal with the issues of land uses and their cumulative effects. All too often, the voices and words of these visionaries (for example, Grant MacEwan, Andy Russell, Peter Lougheed) were obscured by a larger societal clamor focusing on unconstrained economic growth. Currently, the signal to society for the need to balance the triple bottom line is growing louder, and as such it is more expedient for governments to address these issues with new and progressive policies.

Navigating the transition from silo-styled management planning that addresses each land use separately, towards an inclusive multi-sectoral approach that considers the effects of all land use in combination, will require new legal/institutional and economic instruments. Key to these instruments will be new economic mechanisms designed to reward land users for maintaining and enhancing natural capital.

Readers may also wish to read the report Cumulative Effects of Land use in the Ghost River Watershed sponsored by the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society (available at: http://www.alces.ca/projects/index?key=ghost). The Ghost watershed is fully within the Upper Bow River Basin study area and this study addressed objectives similar to the Upper Bow River Basin report.