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Alberta

Five years later: Waterton Lakes National Park plan considers fire recovery

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Waterton – Like the land itself, a new management plan for Waterton Lakes National Park is marked by a powerful wildfire that tore through the southern Alberta park five years ago.

The 2022 plan, tabled in Parliament this summer, sets the park’s direction for the next decade. It includes dealing with climate change and invasive species and considers ways to strengthen Indigenous relationships and connect with Canadians.

The Kenow Wildfire, however, led to a major change from the previous plan. The fire burned more than 19,000 hectares — approximately 39 per cent — of the mountainous park in September 2017 and damaged many popular picnic areas, campgrounds and hiking trails.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate,” Parks Canada’s Locke Marshall, who’s the superintendent in Waterton, said in a recent interview. “We’ve had a lot of support from the federal government.”

Marshall said some of the damaged infrastructure was already being replaced before the fire, but other areas required a complete rebuild.

“There’s been a lot of work that has been done,” he said. “Initially, when the fire went through, our parkways were not available, so we had to work on them to get them ready to go.

“We lost our visitor centre, but we were already in plans to build a new one. Many of our picnic areas got damaged. We’ve done a lot of work on our trails.”

Some areas, such as roads and bridges around Red Rock Canyon, are still being rebuilt and the Crandell Mountain campground is still under construction, he said.

Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University in B.C. and Canada Wildfire’s scientific director, said the fire also affected a lot of the park’s natural landscape.

“It burned a good chunk of the park with high-intensity severity,” he said. “The effect on the vegetation and the soil was severe because it was hot and dry.”

Flannigan said he’s interested to learn more about how the ecosystem has recovered in the park in the five years since the fire.

“I’m hoping Waterton uses this as an educational opportunity to inform the public about fires and regeneration and biodiversity and wildlife,” he said, noting there can be positive changes.

Marshall said Parks Canada has learned a lot and will continue to learn from the wildfire through various research projects.

“This has probably been an opportunity that we really haven’t seen in the past — and that’s just to see what the effects of a widespread fire, a fairly intense fire, has on a landscape and how the landscape itself recovers from it,” he said. “And also how that recovery may be affected by changes to the climate that we’ve seen in the last several decades.

“So, it’s a really good opportunity for science.”

The research, he said, could take decades to complete. He noted there’s already some visible changes in the forests.

“There has been a bit of a transformation,” he said. “A lot of the forests were predominantly conifers — pine, spruce, Douglas fir. In some places … we’re seeing more aspen trees, shrubs and in some places … because of a drier, warmer climate, we may see areas that were once forested will be open meadows now.

“There’s definitely a change in the landscape.”

The plan notes the fire also revealed more than 70 new archeological sites and expanded 170 known sites in the area that burned.

“It was a really good opportunity for some of that archeological work to be done,” Marshall said.

“We’ve been able to involve our nearby Indigenous communities, in particular members of the Blackfoot Confederacy — the Kainai and Piikani — in looking at that landscape and seeing it in the context of their traditional knowledge of the use of the place.”

Marshall said they continue to work with the communities to document the sites, which the plan suggests will be complete by 2025.

Overall, he said, the new management plan shows the agency’s ongoing commitment to protecting the park.

“It deals with the fire,” said Marshall, “but it also deals with our day-to-day operations related to visitation and how we manage the ecological and cultural integrity of the place.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

— By Colette Derworiz in Calgary. Follow @cderworiz on Twitter.

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Alberta

Alberta premier defends new rules on in-person learning, no mask mandates in schools

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By Dean Bennett and Colette Derworiz

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is defending new rules ordering schools to provide in-person learning during the current wave of viral illnesses, saying a clear, measured response is crucial for students and parents.

“We need a normal school environment for our children, and we need to make sure that the classrooms stay open to be able to support our parents,” Smith said at a news conference in Medicine Hat on Friday.

“That’s why we made the decision that we did — to give that clear direction.”

Her comments came a day after she announced regulatory changes saying school boards must provide in-person learning. Schools also can’t require students to wear masks in school or be forced to take classes online.

The changes take effect immediately.

“Anyone is welcome to wear a mask if they feel that that is the right choice for them, but we should not be forcing parents to mask their kids, and we shouldn’t be denying education to kids who turn up without a mask,” Smith said.

She has said mask rules and toggling from online to in-person learning adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the COVID-19 pandemic and strained parents scrambling to make child-care arrangements when schools shut down.

That’s over, Smith said.

“We’re just not going to normalize these kind of extreme measures every single respiratory virus season,” she said.

School boards have been asking for more direction as a slew of seasonal respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, along with some COVID-19 cases, have led to high classroom absentee rates and have jammed children’s hospitals.

In Edmonton, Trisha Estabrooks, board chair for Edmonton Public Schools, said the decision provided the clarity that the board was seeking.

“All Albertans now understand that it’s not within the jurisdiction, and nor should it ever have been within the jurisdiction of individual school boards, to make decisions that belong to health officials,” said Estabrooks.

She said the province has made it clear that any future public health order would supersede the new rules.

The in-person learning change applies to grades 1-12 in all school settings, including public, separate, francophone, public charter and independent schools.

The masking change applies to those same grades and schools, but also to early childhood services.

The Opposition NDP criticized the new rules, saying it’s unrealistic to force schools to be all things to all students while also handling a wave of viral illnesses and not providing additional supports to do it.

Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the government needs to work with school boards to figure out how to make this work.

“You have schools that are struggling to staff the building, (they) can’t get substitute teachers, teachers are sick, they’re covering each other’s classes, principals are covering the classes,” Schilling said in an interview.

“And then to say if you go online, you are to still offer the same programming in person — we just don’t have the people to do that.”

Wing Li, communications director for public education advocacy organization, Support our Students, said it will be difficult for schools to offer hybrid learning without any additional resources.

“There are no teachers,” Li said in an interview. “Pivoting online was mostly due to staffing shortages, which is worse now three years in.”

Li said online learning is challenging for students but, when temporary and supported, can keep schools and communities safe from spreading illness.

“This is a quite aggressive use of the Education Act to enshrine an ideology,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022

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Alberta

Don’t have a cow: Senator’s legen-dairy speech draws metaphor from bovine caper

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OTTAWA — Haven’t you herd? A dramatic tale of 20 escaped cows, nine cowboys and a drone recently unfolded in St-Sévère, Que., and it behooved a Canadian senator to milk it for all it was worth.

Prompting priceless reactions of surprise from her colleagues, Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne recounted the story of the bovine fugitives in the Senate chamber this week — and attempted to make a moo-ving point about politics.

“Honourable senators, usually, when we do tributes here, it is to recognize the achievements of our fellow citizens,” Miville-Dechêne began in French, having chosen to wear a white blouse with black spots for the occasion.

“However, today, I want to express my amused admiration for a remarkably determined herd of cows.”

On a day when senators paid tribute to a late Alberta pastor, the crash of a luxury steamer off the coast of Newfoundland in 1918 and environmental negotiators at the recent climate talks in Egypt, senators seated near Miville-Dechêne seemed udderly taken aback by the lighter fare — but there are no reports that they had beef with what she was saying.

Miville-Dechêne’s storytelling touched on the highlights of the cows’ evasion of authorities after a summer jailbreak — from their wont to jump fences like deer to a local official’s entreaty that she would not go running after cattle in a dress and high heels.

The climax of her narrative came as nine cowboys — eight on horseback, one with a drone — arrived from the western festival in nearby St-Tite, Que., north of Trois-Rivières, and nearly nabbed the vagabonds before they fled through a cornfield.

“They are still on the run, hiding in the woods by day and grazing by night,” said Miville-Dechêne, with a note of pride and perhaps a hint of fromage. 

She neglected to mention the reported costs of the twilight vandalism, which locals say has cost at least $20,000.

But Miville-Dechêne did save some of her praise for the humans in the story, congratulating the municipal general manager, Marie-Andrée Cadorette, for her “dogged determination,” and commending the would-be wranglers for stepping up when every government department and police force in Quebec said there was nothing they could do. 

“There is a political lesson in there somewhere,” said the former journalist.

Miville-Dechêne ended on what could perhaps be interpreted as a butchered metaphor about non-partisanship: “Finally, I would like to confess my unbridled admiration for these cows that have found freedom and are still out there, frolicking about. While we overcomplicate things, these cows are learning to jump fences.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press

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