In the far southwestern corner of Alberta, tucked up against the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains, is the Star Creek watershed. Seen from the road, its alpine heights blend seamlessly with the rest of the Flathead Range, which extends south down to Montana. Its forested lower elevations are hidden in the folds of the landscape, and connect it to the Crowsnest River and beyond to the Oldman River, and ultimately the South Saskatchewan River. Snow is a constant feature at high elevations, while groundwater springs and seeps maintain streamflow through the long winter months. The watershed is far from pristine: located in the historic Crowsnest Pass region, the area was subject to logging and coal mining in the early 1900s, and has been scarred by the periodic wildfires that characterize the lodgepole pine dominated ecosystems of the Eastern Slopes. The last of these – the Lost Creek fire – roared through in 2003 and scorched many adjacent watersheds, but not Star Creek itself. Despite these disturbances – both human and natural – grizzly are often spotted in Star Creek’s upper reaches, and a population of westslope cutthroat trout inhabit an isolated portion of the main creek.
My research in Star Creek was in the planning phases just prior to my departure from academia. As part of a group project, we were developing a research program that would apply different forest harvesting techniques to each of the three sub-watersheds within Star Creek, and examine the impacts on hydrologic processes and runoff generation. It was an exciting project, with many new and interesting research questions.
Last November, the logging for this research project was approved, with harvesting to be done by a BC company. As was to be expected, the local community and conservationists – including retired provincial biologist Lorne Fitch – are up in arms.
It’s not as though there isn’t a precedent for this type of work. In Colorado’s Fraser Experimental Forest, for example, the 1956 Fool Creek experiment applied a forest harvest of alternating clearcut and forested strips to examine the impacts on hydrology. Here in Canada, the Marmot Creek experiment, conducted west of Calgary in the Kananaskis region starting in 1965, aimed to manipulate the subalpine spruce-fir forest to improve water yield. But since that time, few studies have subjected the forest to direct manipulation for hydrologic purposes. Instead, researchers have largely conducted opportunistic research by studying sites after logging has occurred, to see what the effects might be.
Initially, Star Creek was little more to me than an outline on a map, a squiggly line encompassing a small watershed with three even smaller sub-watersheds. Dots and crosses indicated existing research installations, while hatching and shading indicated forest harvesting treatments. It fit well in the context of previous work I’d read from experimental watersheds, but the on-the-ground implications of such an undertaking weren’t at the forefront of my mind.
The more I thought about it, though, it hit home that the research is planned for a watershed to which the local community has a strong attachment, both for recreational and personal natural values. And since it’s not actually an experimental watershed set aside for research purposes, conflicts arise (Note: I’ve recently learned that the project was granted Protective Notation status by the Alberta government, though am not sure exactly what that means for these specific activities).
So who’s right – the researchers or the residents?
Rather than being right or wrong, the conflict lies in each side’s differing value systems and perspectives on risk versus reward. This gap between scientists and the public must be bridged in many instances – from climate change to water conservation. Even though I’m no longer part of the project, I find this case particularly difficult not only because I know the researchers involved, but spent a lot of time (both researching and recreating) in the region affected.
Perspectives and values
The researchers’ perspective focuses on longer timescales and across geographic regions: since the ecosystem has been subject to past disturbance, it’s no longer pristine and is thus considered less valuable in terms of preservation. Also, research results may have broader geographical impacts, as they could be applied to forest harvest strategies across the Eastern slopes. Researchers also place high value on research outcomes for the purposes of understanding the functioning of hydrologic systems, but also for future funding and publications.
The residents’ perspective, however, revolves around shorter timescales and local geography. Residents are less concerned with the past condition of the ecosystem, as it has significant cultural and ecological value to them in its current state. They are less invested in outcomes that have broader geographical implications. They place greater value on recreational and aesthetic considerations, which may be lower down on the researchers’ list of values.
Risk vs. reward
The researchers see the reward (research outcomes) as outweighing the risk to fish and grizzly populations, as they plan to manage risk by complying with Species at Risk (SAR) legislation and applying standard forestry practices to protecting riparian zones. There has also been no public mention of the potential risk of the project for downstream flooding, which suggests they think that risk is relatively low.
However, the residents feel that the risk outweighs the reward. They’re not confident that either the SAR Act or forest management plans will reduce risk, and are also concerned about cumulative impacts. This region has been subject to significant disturbance from logging, oil & gas development, and off road activities, and locals are concerned that this will result in more of the same. Given the research timing so soon after the 2013 Alberta floods, there are also concerns about the downstream impacts of deliberately changing water routing in a headwater system that could experience heavy spring rains in upcoming years.
Insiders vs. outsiders
Lorne Fitch’s comments about ‘ivy-shrouded academics’ suggests that residents perceive that outsiders (researchers/government) are able to come in and do as they please without regard for the people who live there. The divide between insiders and outsiders also stems from the fact that each group values completely different things in the watershed, as noted above. Comments from residents also indicate that they perceive that government support for the project is in direct conflict with the government’s stated aims of ecosystem management.
It seems imperative that the project have not only government support, but also the support of the community – a social license to operate, as it were. But how can that be achieved here? Is it a case of requiring better communication between researchers and the community? Greater input from the community? More clarity from the researchers and government?
At this point I could throw around science communication terms like the deficit model, where you provide people with more facts to help them understand better, but which some people think doesn’t work. I could say that many people think that the key is to connect with people on a more personal level – to link their concerns to tangible outcomes, to make an impression with personal stories (see Dan Kahan’s research at Yale University for more ideas).
But I’m not well-versed enough in these particular techniques to provide a solution to this problem. I don’t know what tangible approaches can be applied to address the issue.
So I’m opening it up to readers – particularly those of you steeped in science outreach and communication: how can this communication gap be solved? Or are the two groups too far apart on key issues to ever be brought closer together?