Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Saskatchewan Parks—are we taking care of the land or taking care of business?

the view from inside a luxury RV
It  has been a while since I have had some strongly worded responses to things I have written in this space, but the last post about a privately-owned RV park in Sask Landing Provincial Park got almost as many comments as the Wawota quad rally post  last year.

If you want to raise an environmental issue that will elicit some discussion, it seems all you have to do is give your opinion on the ways Saskatchewan people use public land for recreation.

Before I say any more about that kind of use and the privatization agenda that goes with it hand in glove, I have to provide a correction with some new information I have received about that privately owned and managed campground for long-term RV leasing at Sask Landing Park.

In my last post I wrote that some of the campers there were “building decks and extending their site footprint well into the drip-line zone [beneath the cottonwoods]. Within a matter of weeks, the cottonwood grove has gone from a quiet natural area where any member of the public could walk and experience some prairie beauty, to the private tiki-lit domain of a few privileged and high-impact lease-holders.”

Well, it turns out that that is not entirely fair, and overstates things. The campground owner said in his comments that “We have about 10% of our lots with cotton [sic] poplars on them. All potential lessee [sic] had a list of those lots and were well informed no building can happen on the drip zone. I assure you that non [sic] has!”

I have received another report, however, assuring me that there are some firepits under the cottonwoods. A third report said that there were pathways and paving stones being placed under the dripline and people are cutting the grass. Nevertheless, it sounds like disturbance under the cottonwoods is not a serious problem at least in this first summer of the campground bringing in 125 long term lease RVs. 

Therefore, I owe the campground owner, Mr. Bardahl, an apology for jumping to conclusions. I will be more careful.

However, the details of what is or is not happening under one grove of trees is not the main issue here. As Mr. Bardahl points out in his remarks, it is the privatization of our provincial park land that is troubling me.

Why? If you have been going to Saskatchewan Parks as long as I have you will know the problem and its history. A comment I received from a reader who has witnessed a degradation of our parks under privatization and weak regulation sums things up:

“This article really strikes home. My family built a small cabin in Duck Mountain Provincial Park in its early years where there were more stringent limits on development. Green space was much more protected. Cabins were cabins, not four-season mansions. It was accessible and appreciated by people of all income levels. While I grew up, I saw the lake become filled with noise in the summer, the lake got turbid, and the shoreline became dominated by atrocious monuments to wealth. I've seen my neighbours turn from friendly lake people to cold-shoulder suburbanites who use their vacation home for all of three weeks per year. In that time, the quality of park services to the public fell drastically. There used to be several trails - now all grown in and impassible. No organised events or activities for all ages, aside from the usual interpretive programming. The business that runs the general store, cabin/boat rentals and campground store is a joke (but that's another story.) The park favours the rich, through and through. It has lost its mandate to the public.”

The degradation described here began with the neo-liberalism of the early ‘80s. The new Grant Devine Conservative government, following its ideology of reducing government and turning public assets into private ones, started to sell off rental accommodations in provincial parks—in particular, the new facilities at Duck Mountain and Cypress Hills. The buildings began to decline almost immediately under private ownership and the fees rose. Meanwhile funding for ecological programming and maintenance of park infrastructure began to erode as tax-cutting agendas took hold of voters and governments in the late 80s and 90s.

During the NDP era, none of this was remedied and now under the Saskatchewan Party the agenda of saving taxes by cutting environmental protection and providing corporate welfare for private developers has a firm grip on our parks system. Private contractors are often engaged to cut firewood, maintain trails and clean facilities—and the work, when it is done, does not have the same kind of quality control and accountability that comes with a fully funded park system. Compare the state of the trails in our parks to those you see across the border in the United States or in some other parts of Canada and you will know what I mean. Our park staff do the best they can with inadequate budgets but we keep electing the government that promises lowest taxes.

Unfortunately, the same people who want their taxes low also want more RV campsites in our parks. The demand for fully-serviced camping facilities with water, sewer and electrical hook-ups and for long term RV-sites in our parks is on the rise.  For whatever reason, more and more people seem to need to experience nature with a fifth-wheel trailer or motorhome close at hand.  
Cypress Hills Provincial Park Campgrounds . . . how much is too much?

Meanwhile, other campers are complaining about the lack of quiet, natural camping for tents, and feel that RV users are taking over our parks and getting more than their share of park budgets.  These conflicting perspectives both need to be heard, but we have to find ways to meet a wide range of recreation and camping needs without harming the natural heritage of our provincial parks.

Unfortunately, instead of a clear focus on carrying capacity and ecological limits, we seem to have a park system that has thrown open the doors to private business—come one come all. All proposals will be considered—monster home subdivisions, RV lease site campgrounds, golf courses. How about a strip mall? Paint ball anyone?

All of these businesses could be set up on private land but in the new Saskatchewan, developers are learning that costs are far lower if you can set up on publicly-owned land, particularly if there is some water, sewage, road and electrical infrastructure you can piggy-back upon.

I have nothing against RV camping but it is, like hunting or fishing, a high-impact use of public land and likewise requires some limits and strict regulation. We don’t increase the bag limits and numbers of hunters allowed in any given zone of the province just because more people want to hunt; we stick to limits based on what the ecology can bear. It has to be the same with building campgrounds, golf courses, marinas and other kinds of man-made disturbance in our parks.

Do we want to end up with provincial parks that look like privately run tourist operations attached to suburban subdivisions? I would hope that most Saskatchewan people want to keep our parks natural and ecologically healthy, but if we keep privatizing and developing pieces of land to meet the growing demand for of high-impact recreation, the beauty, wildness, and quiet that draws us to our lakes and parks will slowly become layered over in gravel, asphalt, concrete, and paving stones.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Get your piece of Saskatchewan: privatizing provincial parks

Saskatchewan has some of the northernmost cottonwood trees on the continent (image courtesy of Wikimedia)
As summer winds down, we may find ourselves looking back on those too few weeks--sad they are ending but happy for the hours we got to spend in the wild and beautiful places all around us.

Thousands of us went to see our provincial parks, from Narrow Hills, Clearwater and La Ronge in the north to Cypress Hills and Moose Mountain in the south. Maybe you walked their trails, paddled their waters, or camped amid the beauty of their grassland valleys or lake-side spruce groves. And if you did, you likely saw lots of other people enjoying the park in their own way. All of this takes planning, work, and regulation to ensure that there will always be public land where we can encounter the world on more than human terms. If you stop for a moment to think about that, you can't help but feel some gratitude that we have a Parks Ministry full of people who go to work every day to sustain our parks and protected areas.

We can be thankful too that the Saskatchewan Party, and Premier Wall in particular, seems to be fond of our parks system--at least the small but increasing portion that is dedicated to cabin subdivisions, RV camping and other things that make nature nice and comfy for us--the service centres, boat launches, water systems, quad trails, picnic tables and barbecues, etc.

The Province has in recent years spent some money to build and fix up such facilities in the core areas of some parks, and has improved camping and access opportunities-- including $2 million for the development of a new, 68 full-service site campground at Greenwater Lake Provincial Park, and an automated campground registration system.

And people are responding--park usage data shows the parks are being used at record levels. But "visitor experience" and turnstile figures only speak to one half of the mandate and mission of our provincial parks. The other side, protection of ecologically and culturally important landscapes, appears to be losing out in decision after decision. The policy balance between visitation and recreation on the one hand and ecological management and protection on the other has always been a struggle for provincial governments of all political stripes, but I think we are seeing a strong tilt in recent years toward increasing access and opportunities for high-impact, resource-intensive kinds of recreation and camping in Saskatchewan parks.

It is happening at parks like Moose Mountain where ATV users are making more inroads each year, gaining access to trails that were until recently for non-motorized traffic only. Across the park system, well-connected, vocal organizations and private business interests seem to be able to persuade policy makers to ignore or circumvent ministry conservation regulations and practices when they conflict with the agenda of providing more subdivisions, more RV sites, and more opportunities for high-impact forms of recreation.

The imbalance in favour of exploitation and development gets particularly wonky when private business interests begin to drive park policy and planning. Last fall, the Parks Ministry announced that it had "struck a deal" with a private company to build a new seasonal camping area at Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park. Cactus Blume Campground Ltd., owned by John Bardahl (who also owns a home in the park) received a 25-year lease on a piece of the provincial park to run his own private campground business--125 sites large sites, as well as places for boat storage, a playground and laundry, plus electricity, sewage and water.

our public lands are being granted to private campgrounds for long-term camping of RVs

Now I have heard the sad tale that RV people have trouble finding campsites, and on a good day I might be sympathetic to their argument that they deserve more public land where they can park their rigs, store their quads and seadoos, and kick back in front of their big screen TVs for the summer--but does it have to be in a large grove of Plains Cottonwoods, one of the most ecologically significant portions of the park? And even if it had to be put in the cottonwoods, wouldn't it be easier to regulate its ecological impact if the Parks Ministry had built and managed the campground itself?

The stand of cottonwoods in question is one of the only riparian cottonwood ecosystems in Saskatchewan's entire network of parks and protected areas. All cottonwood populations along the South Saskatchewan River--among the most northerly cottonwood ecosystems on the continent--have already been placed at risk by Gardiner dam. Cottonwoods depend on the natural rise and fall of prairie rivers for their reproduction and renewal but the dam flooded out most of Saskatchewan's cottonwood flats fifty-some years ago. Water management for electricity has more or less precluded the kind of healthy fluctuation of water levels that cottonwoods require to stay healthy.

Knowing all of this--and knowing the regulations around siting facilities in sensitive areas--science and conservation staff within the Parks Ministry would have advised against allowing someone to build a campground for 125 RVs in one of Saskatchewan's only protected groves of Plains Cottonwoods.

But Saskatchewan Landing, the closest park to Premier Wall's home in Swift Current, seems to be the testing grounds for sweetheart privatization deals, and it would not be a wild guess if someone were to suggest that the private campground developer might be a Sask Party supporter.

Regardless of the owner's connections--and in that part of the country everyone knows and supports the Premier anyway--the Cactus Blume campground opened this summer and quickly filled with RVs owned by people holding freshly-signed multi-year leases on provincial land.

The Parks Ministry gave strict instructions to make sure that none of the sites encroached on the canopy drip line of the cottonwood trees--i.e. the ground and vegetation directly beneath the outer circumference of each cottonwood's branches was supposed to be left natural and not used by the leaseholding campers as part of their sites. That single restriction, however, has already been tossed aside, and campers this summer have been happily building decks and extending their site footprint well into the drip-line zone. Within a matter of weeks, the cottonwood grove has gone from a quiet natural area where any member of the public could walk and experience some prairie beauty, to the private tiki-lit domain of a few privileged and high-impact lease-holders.

So, where is this going to go next? Well, there is a new private cottage subdivision proposed for Sask. Landing Park on a promontory overlooking the north side of the valley and east of the highway. Aside from the aesthetic loss of a hill crest in the park, there are concerns that some of the land slated to be covered by McMansions may contain native prairie.

These are good days for people who have the money and connections to get a piece of a provincial park--for those who can afford to lease a subdivision lot or a place for their boat and RV, and especially for those who are able to profit from building private campsites and subdivisions. They come to the Province with these proposals because they know that if they tried to do the same thing on private land they would face higher start up costs and much lower demand for their sites. For a very favourable fee the developer and his customers receive an exclusive kind of access to a piece of the public trust, including the ability to tie-in to water, sewer, roads, and other forms of publicly subsidized infrastructure.

There needs to be an open review of park privatization practices and a publicly accountable mechanism to ensure that carrying capacity guidelines and regulations--those in place and those yet to come--are actually enforced, even when someone fortunate enough to be on the inside of the governing party's circle of friends receives a handshake promise.
the hills at Sask Landing (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

news: Chaplin wind project will be moved somewhere else!

Ferruginous Hawks and other species at risk will fly free on the grasslands where wind turbines were proposed (image courtesy of Brian Sterenberg)
Members of the media at a meeting with SaskPower today were told that the Chaplin wind project will not be approved as proposed. Wayne Mantyka of CTV news followed up with a call to the Premier's Office and they told him that the proponent has been told that they will have to propose another site; that if they persist with this site at Chaplin the Province will have to say no.

A tweet from Mantyka earlier today said, "Algonquin Power told to find different location for proposed Chaplin Wind Farm."

This is tremendous news for Saskatchewan, and a credit to the work of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, Nature Saskatchewan, Nature Regina, Nature Canada, the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, Council of Canadians, Public Pastures--Public Interest and many many others who voiced their concerns about the Chaplin site.

But a voice of concern goes nowhere if there is no one listening. This wise decision comes after countless hours of work by people inside SaskPower and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment--public servants who did everything they could to ensure that the public comments would be heard at the highest levels and to provide policy-makers with a full picture of the risks involved in going ahead with such a project. I have met some of these people, and have seen how motivated they are to protect the biodiversity of the province while we transition to alternative energies. They may receive little thanks and will say they were just doing their job, but good decisions like this one do not come without a lot of internal discussion, research, and persuasion. We should all be grateful that the biologists and other staff at SaskPower and the Ministry of Environment took a strong position and that senior staff in the ministers' offices of several ministries gave them a good hearing and made the right call.

This landmark decision bodes well for Saskatchewan's wind energy development plans. The province has an opportunity now to lead the way in proper siting of wind projects, and to set a high standard for the industry to follow.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Update on Yancoal: Press Conference at Copper Kettle June 6th

an aerial shot of the Qu'Appelle Valley and Ft. Qu'Appelle Area, courtesy of Wikimedia.org



The Leader of the Opposition and Party Leaders from the Green, Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties invited to attend QVEA’s June 6th Press Conference on Yancoal Project.

On June 6th at 10 am at Regina’s Copper Kettle restaurant the QVEA will hold a Press Conference to release its 5-point Position Paper on the Yancoal potash solution mine proposed near Southey.

June 6th is the last day that public comments can be submitted on Yancoal’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The QVEA has major concerns about the lack of time for public involvement, long-term water security, implications of deep wastewater injection, potash revenues, and the downstream impacts.

The QVEA will be joined by NDP Opposition Leader Trent Wotherspoon, Green Leader Victor Lau, Progressive Conservative Leader Rick Swenson and Liberal Leader Darrin Lamoureux or their designates who will raise their own concerns about the Yancoal project.

The QVEA wants to see a broad-based, multi-party conversation about the need to protect Saskatchewan’s long-term water security as well as protecting the ecologically and recreationally-vulnerable Qu’Appelle Valley.

QVEA organizing committee members Jim Harding, Lorna Evans and Randy Lebell will present the QVEA concerns about the Yancoal Project, the party leaders will be asked to make their own comments, and the press conference will then be open for questions from the media.

For further information contact: Jim Harding - 306-332-4492 or Randy Lebell- 306-331-6231.

*The newly-formed QVEA sponsored the all-party, all-candidates meeting (four parties attended) during the provincial election to discuss the protection of the Qu’Appelle Valley. The QVEA was formed in the aftermath of the huge valley outcry over Regina’s ongoing releases of untreated sewage into the Lower Qu’Appelle.

The Qu'Appelle Watershed, showing all the dams along the river.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Yancoal: more evidence that environmental assessment is not protecting the land

Hey--it is Saskatchewan Mining Week--a time when we can all celebrate the way we let foreign companies dig stuff out of the ground and haul it away leaving a big mess behind.

According to the Fraser Institute’s 2015 Survey of Mining Companies, an annual international survey of exploration, development and mining-related companies, Saskatchewan is the number one jurisdiction for mining investment attractiveness in Canada and the second most attractive jurisdiction in the world. Why? Gee--could it be that we have a government that promises corporations that they will expedite the environmental assessment and approval process?
The Province is right now going through an environmental review of a proposed potash mine for the Southey area north of Regina. Local people are concerned (Western Producer story here) that the design by Chinese coal mining giant Yancoal will harm the loon creek water system and the Qu'Appelle lakes. They say that the water the mine will use from the Qu'Appelle system might well affect Regina, Moose Jaw and all communities drawing water from the Hatfield Valley Aquifer. Yancoal, however, has some experience working with the law to deal with any resistance from local farm people. (UPDATE--there will be a press conference at Regina's Copper Kettle Restaurant on June 6th, featuring leaders of the opposition parties. Details here. Read also this excellent post about Yancoal by Jim Harding.)

click on image to get larger Google satellite image showing Southey area
and Loon Creek (just left of centre meandering south toward the Qu'Appelle.)

We need to get this right, because once this first Yancoal project is through the chute, there will be more to come. Yancoal says it currently holds 19 potash permits in Saskatchewan, covering approximately 5,364 square kilometres. Saskatchewan could start to look like parts of China where land and water is subjugated to mining and industrial interests.

The following is a guest post by members of the Havelock Special Projects Committee, who live in the area and wants to encourage people from the area and throughout the Qu'Appelle watershed to submit their comments on or before the deadline of June 6th (only seven days remaining!).

Public comments should be sent, either by mail, fax or e-mail to environmental.assessment@gov.sk.ca. Comments must be formalized through written submission and should include your first name, last name and preferred method of contact. 

If you are not emailing then mail or fax to:

Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment Environmental Assessment Branch 
4th Floor, 3211 Albert Street 
Regina, SK 
S4S 5W6 
Tel: 306-787-6132 Fax: 306-787-0930

Here is how the Ministry of the Economy sees Saskatchewan

Here is the post from the Havelock Special Projects Committee:


The Ministry of Environment is currently accepting public comment on the Yancoal Southey Project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). All public comments are due on June 6, 2016. This project raises a lot of questions and everyone with an interest is encourage to submit a letter to the Ministry.
Yancoal Southey Project

The Yancoal Southey Project is a green field mine that will produce potash through solution mining. The Project is located within the subsurface mineral permits KP377 and CP392, west of Highway 6 and north of grid road 731. The project will be designed to produce 2.8 million tonnes of potash per year. The life expectancy of the project is 65 – 100 years (Yancoal.ca).

Yancoal has put forth an aggressive schedule for the project:

2016 – EIS Review, Financial Decision, Environmental Permitting

2017 (Q2) to 2019 – Construction

2020 – Commissioning (Yancoal.ca).

Water Supply

The Water Security Agency (WSA) has indicated that Buffalo Pound Lake is the source Yancoal will draw water from if the project is approved. There is significant public concern about the ability for Buffalo Pound to sustain water demand from existing industries and previously approved potash projects, in addition to the Yancoal project. The WSA does not use climate change forecasts in their modelling. WSA bases the allocation modeling on historical long term averages and annual variability (highs and lows). The risk is high if WSA’s analysis is incorrect and the lake cannot sustain the amount of water it allocates for new mining projects.

Yancoal and the WSA have stated that in case of water shortage residential water needs will take first priority over that of industry. However, the WSA will enter into a contract to supply Yancoal with water, if WSA cannot supply the water then there is potential that the WSA would have to pay Yancoal a penalty fee. Perhaps this penalty clause would be a similar to that SaskPower is paying to Cenovus because they are not producing the volume of carbon they originally agreed to (Plant.ca).
Potential Water Contamination

Yancoal is proposing to drill right through the Hatfield Aquifer. This aquifer is a major source of water for surrounding communities and farmyards. There is no existing solution potash mines over top major aquifers in Saskatchewan. Yancoal assures there will be no contamination to the aquifer and they will monitor closely to see if there are impacts. If the monitoring does detects problems, it will be too late and the water will be compromised. What will surrounding residents and towns do when their water source is compromised? Will Yancoal pay for it? Is there a dollar value that can be put on access to drinking water? Do we trust a huge company to self monitor something as important as our water?

The current natural drainage from the proposed mine area drains into Loon Creek and then enters the Qu’Appelle water system south of Southey and feeds into the Calling Lakes near Fort Qu’Appelle. Once the mine is operational the drainage will contain high levels of salinity which could negatively impact the existing eco-system in the Calling Lakes.


The host community north of Southey, Sask is a thriving agricultural community. There are a number of young farmers all trying to grow their farms and establish roots in the community. The heritage of family farming is prevailing in this community – other parts of our province are not so fortunate. There are 18 homes and 52 people living in a 2 mile radius of the core facility and 126 homes and 325 people living in a 5 mile radius of the Yancoal project. This is a heavily populated rural area and it appears as though Yancoal did not take that into account when selecting this location. If these people are left to live so close to the mine their health and lifestyles will be negatively impacted. Up-rooting these families will disrupt an otherwise prosperous and content community. The proposed Yancoal mine is not sustainable based on the negative impact it will have on the population surrounding the mine.


Allowing Yancoal to proceed with this project, based on the way they have developed this project to date is setting the bar far too low. If Yancoal is allowed to get away developing a major project using the business practices they have then the Province will be opening the flood gates for further unfavorable developers. Yancoal was not aware of how to properly do business in Saskatchewan when they started this project. They have divided the community, they have exposed residents living nearby to undue stress and uncertainty about the future, and they have added a huge burden financial burden to the RM which they have not agreed to reimburse. The Ministry of Environment needs to be made aware of the concern this project conjures up with the public. The best way to do that is to make your concerns known and your voice heard by submitting a letter to the Ministry by June 6. If you would like more information on the impacts this project has already had in the community and the environmental concerns that still need to be addressed, please follow Havelock Special Projects Committee on Twitter or Facebook.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A trip to see Species at Risk at Chaplin grasslands

on Saturday, a team of birders made a rough survey of birds at grasslands slated for
wind development north of Chaplin Lake
In the coming weeks we will almost certainly see the Saskatchewan Government approve Algonquin Power Company's wind project four and a half kilometres north of Chaplin Lake.

That setback distance is the minimum required from a major wetland like Chaplin Lake, and we will perhaps in years to come learn how the shorebirds and other waterbirds who use the wetlands in the area are being affected by the installation of wind turbines.

However, as I mentioned in my last post, the decision to site 24 turbines on native prairie is the biggest single threat posed by this wind energy development.

Those hills of native grassland support an array of wild animals whose tenuous efforts to breed and rear viable young will be hurt by the introduction of massive vertical structures in their home ranges.

Instead of unbroken native range and open skies above, the landscape will be dominated by a network of 24 wind generators filling the sky. And the sky matters. For hawks and aerial-displaying birds like the pipit and long-billed curlew, open sky with no vertical structures is habitat. Each turbine site will have a gravel pad footprint where the native cover is removed. As well there will be an electrical substation, a web of new electrical collector lines, and new roads into each site and connecting one to the other.

Click on this link to see a short (and windy!) video of the native grass-covered hills that will soon fill the air with turbines instead of hawks and pipits. 

So, how many hawks, curlews, pipits and other vulnerable birds breed in this landscape that will be damaged by Algonquiin's wind project? Stantec Consulting Ltd., the "environmental consultants" who conducted the environmental impact research work and wrote the Environmental Impact Statement for the proponent, did some breeding bird survey and amphibian surveys from 2012 onward.

Here is a map from the EIS document--but it merely shows a few of their records:

More significantly, here is a table from the Wildlife Technical Review, Appendix d4 of the EIS. It shows that their field survey's in 2014 turned up 672 individuals of 15 different vertebrate "Species of Conservation Concern," including Species at Risk.

672 creatures, many of whom will not be able to co-exist with the linear and vertical structures soon to come to their neighbourhood.

One odd thing about this list is the low number for Ferruginous Hawk. Local naturalists will testify that this is an important area for both Swainson's and Ferruginous Hawks.

Last Saturday, I joined a team of four other birders to do a quick survey of hawks and other birds currently using the native grassland slated for wind development north of Chaplin.

It was an informal effort and we spent less than two hours, surveying a small subset of the total grassland area to be affected.

We stayed on the few public roads that give limited access to the land, stopping at intervals to listen and watch for birds. Our hearing was limited by 70 kilometre per hour winds, which also would have suppressed bird song. Nonetheless, we heard Sprague's Pipits at three stops, and saw a pair of Lark Buntings.  Along one road we found a small group of Sharp-tailed Grouse. But it was the large hawks that dominated the landscape.

Swainson's and Ferruginous hawks seemed to be on every horizon. We counted eight Swainson's, all recently arrived from their winter in Argentina, and we saw five Ferruginous--a very high number especially with our limited access to the property.

Here are two shots of Ferruginous Hawks, taken by Brian Sterneberg on Saturday morning.

Stantec had this to say in the EIS about birds and bats they recorded in native grassland:

"During bird surveys, five sharp-tailed grouse lek were recorded and the LAA ["local assessment area"] was found to be used during nocturnal shorebird movement. Breeding birds observed include Baird’s sparrow, bobolink, chestnut-collared longspur, sharp-tailed grouse, Sprague’s pipit, and barn swallow. Bat species were also identified in the LAA including: eastern red, hoary, long-eared, silver-haired, western small footed bats, little brown myotis and big brown bat."

That is a lot of species depending on the habitat, and yet Stantec's very next sentence states, without any substantial rationale, that the project's "residual environmental effects" on these species "were predicted to be not significant." Huh?

The Ferruginous Hawk and Sprague's Pipit have already lost most of their native grassland habitat on the northern Great Plains, and have demonstrated quite effectively that they disappear from an area when the habitat is significantly altered by agriculture and other kinds of industrial activity.

The hawks we saw on Saturday were flying over the hills; the pipits were also high up in the air. They were not on fenceposts or foraging at the side of the road. Pipits don't do that. These tiny songbirds were aloft, a couple hundred feet above us, in courtship flightsong, marking the boundaries of their territories. For a pipit, a bird known to remain at this height for an hour or more at a time, the air is a significant portion of its home range.

Ferruginous hawks use the space above native prairie to hover as they hunt for their prey, ground squirrels. The first three hundred feet of space above the prairie is almost as vital to a pipit or a Ferruginous hawk as the grass below. Once this aerial habitat is overtaken by dozens of three-hundred foot high turbines with one-hundred foot long blades slicing through the air, these birds so accustomed to the sky and grass dynamic of prairie will lose their breeding grounds. We can do all the mitigation and monitoring in the world after the destruction, but it will do nothing to help them to remain and breed successfully.

The proponent will talk about remaining a certain distance from nesting sites of Species at Risk, but for a bird like the Sprague's Pipit, it is doubtful that surveyors, no matter how skilled or diligent, would find even a small percentage of their nests. Most of those 62 hectares is prime pipit habitat and there are likely pipits nesting on most quarter sections.

Where is our protection for endangered species in this country? Can someone please remind me why Canada has Species at Risk legislation? What good is it if a provincial government, acting through its Crown Corporation can sponsor the destruction of 62 hectares of habitat for officially listed species?

There are thousands of wind-swept acres a short distance north, east, and west of the islands of native grassland that SaskPower, the Saskatchewan Government, and Algonquin Power have in their sights--places that lost their pipits and Ferruginous hawks decades ago when the ancient sod was plowed.

When a government is so irrationally and without any satisfactory explanation attached to a site that is clearly a disastrous and unpopular choice, can you blame people for speculating that someone shook someone's hands on a deal we will likely never hear about?

Saskatchewan needs plenty of well-sited wind energy projects to be sure, but this is not the way to proceed. It won't do to destroy native grassland for this project and then write some toothless guideline document that will be filed on government shelves and ignored whenever it is expedient to do so.

We need to stop the government-sponsored destruction of native grassland now, while the air above the Chaplin prairie hills is still flush with song and the hovering of hawks.

Once that is done, we need something more than wishy-washy guidelines to ensure we have no more Chaplins in our future. We need to legislate and enforce strong, binding regulations on siting wind energy projects that all proponents and government agencies will have to follow.

Anything less will turn Chaplin from a cautionary tale into a dangerous precedent and more native grassland ecosystems will be degraded and destroyed by wind energy projects.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Chaplin Wind Project will be going ahead

the 79 turbines planned will be directly north of Chaplin Lake,
one of Canada's Eight Hemispheric Shorebird Reserves

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment received an unprecedented number of submissions, 137 in fact, expressing concern and alarm over the proposed wind energy project north of Chaplin Lake, including strong statements from the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, Nature Canada, and other conservation groups.

Regardless, all indications are that the Chaplin project will be going through more or less as planned, with 79 turbines 4.5 kms straight north of the lake. Even more disturbing, 24 of them will destroy most of 62 hectares of native grassland. The 4.5 km setback from the wetland is right on the borderline of recommended setbacks and may still prove to be a source of embarrassment for the Province if a great many bats and birds are killed by the turbines, but for now the decision to site 24 turbines on native prairie is the biggest single threat posed by this wind energy development.

Besides the footprint of each turbine and its gravel pad, there will be roads with a lot of truck traffic going to and from the installations. Though many transmission lines will be buried (which will also introduce weeds and fragment the native grassland), there will be some aerial transmission lines along roads. With species at risk such as Ferruginous Hawks nesting and hunting ground squirrels in the area, all of these forces degrading the habitat should be enough to force any responsible government to move the 24 turbines off of native prairie.

Ferruginous hawks depend on the grasslands north of Chaplin Lake 
(image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

Instead, we are expecting that any day now Minister Herb Cox will announce his approval of the project more or less as is.

His own people, biologists and others inside his ministry, have no doubt advised him to move the project off of native grassland but their advice is falling on deaf ears. Within the political limits imposed by the Minister--i.e. the project must be approved and no turbines will be moved off native grass or farther away from the flight paths of Chaplin Lake's teeming bird life--public servants in the ministry have very likely been scrambling to come up with some way to reduce the harm of this egregiously bad choice for siting a major wind project.

Thanks to their hard work, there will likely be some mitigation and monitoring measures announced with the approval decision. Unfortunately, as the ministry's biologists know better than anyone, mitigation and monitoring after you have sacrificed the habitat is never enough to make up for the disruption and degradation caused by such a development.

The proponent, Algonquin, will want to hire its own consulting engineering company to do the monitoring--someone like Stantec--because they know that a consultant they hire is unlikely to find any data that would require them to shut down or move turbines. That kind of self-regulation, with poorly designed data-gathering models and often unqualified researchers, is unacceptable in a development this controversial.

If the province really wants to show us that they are doing their best to protect the bats and birds, and finding ways to site wind projects properly, they should make the proponent secure truly independent monitoring by researchers from a university or some other third party organization.

If the Chaplin project goes ahead--and all indications are that it will--the Province needs to ensure that real scientists with no connection to the proponent are engaged to design, conduct and oversee studies that are legitimately aimed at figuring out the impacts of putting up so many turbines on native grassland and north of a world class shorebird reserve.

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