How to Defile a Wilderness | Jim McLennan

Ours is considered a gentle sport for the most part, and that trait is part of its attraction. Recently, more people are finding solace and clarity—and much-needed gentleness—in the outdoors and the activities there, one of which is fly fishing.


And while it’s true that fishing, called the “contemplative man’s recreation” by Isaac Walton, can indeed be gentle and thought-provoking, sometimes our contemplation needs to be sharply focused.


An example is the recent controversy and struggle to prevent construction of a huge copper and gold mine in Alaska, called Pebble Mine. The effects of the mine on the environment and the Bristol Bay watershed would have been massive. For now the project has been canceled, thanks to participation in a long, arduous fight by a great number of people and groups who value the outdoors, including fly fishers.


A similar battle has been escalating in Alberta in recent months over the threat to the future health of land and water posed by proposed expansion of open-pit coal mining. The mountains and foothills are the headwaters and domain of Alberta’s best and best-known trout streams: The Oldman River, the Crowsnest River, the Livingstone River, the Highwood River, the Ram River, plus all their critical tributaries. These mountains and foothills are the Alberta wilderness. 

Alberta’s government, for reasons that defy logic and understanding, appears determined and committed to allowing and even promoting expansion of open-pit coal mining in the headwaters of many of these streams. It’s a complex story, too much so for this space, but the Reader’s Digest version goes like this: Alberta had a good, forward-thinking Coal Policy in place since 1976, a policy that allowed mining in places where impact on the environment is minimal and restricted it in sensitive areas where it would cause severe irreparable damage.

But after quietly advising foreign mining companies (mostly Australian) in the fall of 2019 that restrictions on open pit mining would soon be lifted, the government equally quietly and with no consultation with any groups but coal groups, rescinded the 1976 policy on the Friday afternoon of 2020’s first summer long weekend.


This is where we come in. A hue and cry arose from municipalities (including major cities), First Nations, hunters, ranchers, farmers, hikers, photographers—and yes, fly fishers—demanding that the 1976 policy be reinstated. Government representatives appeared to be either surprised that people were smart enough to know what had happened, or surprised to find that people objected to what had happened. The 1976 policy was re-instated in February 2020, and the government vowed to invite public consultation to create a new policy, but exploratory work—test drilling, construction of roads and drilling pads—that began between May and February was allowed to continue and does continue. As of this writing, the volume of exploration roads have already exceeded legal limits set by—you guessed it—the provincial government.

For a number of reasons—lack of transparency, the public’s lack of trust in this government, the question of why mining companies continue to accrue the costs of exploration without some assurance of a clear path to actual mining—skepticism remains high about the real goals and intentions of the government regarding open-pit coal mining.


The damage caused to land, water, and wildlife by open-pit mining is diverse and severe. Perhaps most significant to trout is selenium, a by-product that is carried downhill by rain and snowmelt, reaching the tributaries and eventually mainstream rivers. Selenium causes deformities, reproductive failure, and death in trout. Open-pit coal mines have caused significant problems next door to Alberta in British Columbias Elk Valley, where westslope cutthroat populations in a major tributary of the Elk River have been decimated by selenium concentrations 25-to-50 times the province’s water-quality guidelines for protecting aquatic life.


This issue goes beyond fly fishing and that’s one of the reasons there’s hope that such mining can be prevented. The importance of water cannot be overstated now or in the approaching future. These mines would need a lot of water and that water that would have to come from river systems that are already over-allocated. To coin a phrase, “they’re not making any more water.” But they are making plenty more demands on the water we have.


It’s accurately said that “everyone lives downstream” and downstream water issues in Alberta would affect farms, ranches, towns, and municipalities. Anyone who values these foothills and mountains for any reason—aesthetic or practical—is on the same team.


The lesson for fly fishers is that there’s always a fight to be fought, a letter to be written, an acquaintance to be engaged. Fly fishers are responding strongly to this issue, and must continue to do so, but one thing that concerns me is that we’re preaching mostly to the choir. There are many people either unaware or unconcerned with the issue who must be made aware and concerned. We need to keep talking about this, especially to those outside the fly-fishing community, and encourage them to take up the fight in concrete ways. And we must do more than simply talk.


There are a number of good sources of information on this issue. One is, which has summaries of the situation, commentaries, and specific suggestions on ways to get involved. Please do so.


It’s time to focus our contemplation.