A Dangerous Man with a Dangerous Concept - Brad Stelfox

Cumulative effects

BY Lorne Fitch

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, a ruler had a vision of an impending famine. He bought up all the grain in the surrounding area to feed his city. The famine came to pass and his subjects had enough to eat, but he discovered, too late, that the grain was contaminated and those who ate it would, over time, go mad. The ruler summoned his most loyal young subject and gave him all the remaining uncontaminated grain in the city, with strict orders to only eat that grain. The loyal subject asked his ruler, “Why me?” The ruler solemnly answered, “Because you are young and we will need someone sane, when we are all mad, to tell us what we are.”

In present times, many have partaken of the myth of constant growth, inevitable progress and inexorable economic advancement — arguably to the point of madness. To inject some sanity in a growth-focused world, “to tell us what we are,” is a dangerous, yet necessary undertaking.

Over time there have been some notably dangerous men and women who have confronted the status quo, toppled conventional thinking, debunked ideologies, and pried off our blinders. Copernicus and Darwin come to mind, as do contemporary exemplars like Rachel Carson, David Suzuki, and David Schindler.

Dr. Brad Stelfox is another David confronting the Goliaths of industry, commerce, politics, and entrenched self-interest. Rather than a sling, his weapon of choice is cumulative effects assessment (CEA).

Using data collected over many years from industry, government, and academia, Stelfox developed ALCES — A Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator — to objectively measure and track land-use activities and their accumulating footprint.

We tend to see the world in snapshots: one well site, another subdivision, a new road, a cutblock appearing. It’s hard to add up the incremental, additive changes and losses; to do the math over time and project that trendline into the future. That’s why it’s always a surprise when the nebulous future becomes our present and we run short on water, land, and wildlife.

All land uses, and all their effects, are cumulative simply because everything accumulates and lingers, both over space and through time. A series of seemingly insignificant individual changes can accumulate to result in a significant overall effect. The sum of these individual stressors may be devastating to ecosystems and ecosystem function.

That’s the mirror CEA holds up: showing our world isn’t limitless and our growth trajectory isn’t endless. CEA is one of very few tools that gives us the capability to understand today’s actions and their implications for tomorrow.

The process of modelling cumulative effects neither defends nor demonizes the status quo, often termed the “business as usual” case. As Stelfox says, “While there may be no inherent right or wrong in our decisions, there inevitably will be consequences.” The opportunity CEA affords us is to set a better trajectory for balancing ecological, social, and economic goals. We can invoke choice, rather than chance, and inform the pathway to tomorrow with the decisions of today.

Stelfox acknowledges that the pragmatic science of CEA cannot give us all the answers. The most difficult questions, the most persistent problems, and often the greatest challenges are not matters of science — they are related to values. The primary impediment to sustainable resource management is not a lack of ecological understanding — it is social, political, and economic forces. The problem is not that we do not know enough, but that we do not allow what we know to constrain our behaviour.

Cumulative effects models can deal with skepticism, but not denial. Sometimes messages about the future are unpopular because the listener perceives they will be affected in a negative way. Understanding what the future may bring introduces an aspect of change, from the familiar and expected to the new and uncertain. Those who want to do nothing and make no change can find enough uncertainty to avoid doing anything. The point of CEA is to inform change, while change is still possible; to exercise flexibility, alternatives, and choice. The utility of CEA lies in seeking agreement on what future is desired, not through guesswork, but through scientific tools including thought, planning, and foresight.

Cumulative Effects in the East Slopes

Despite decades of progress, watershed planning for the East Slopes of Alberta is still in its infancy. This is a busy landscape that’s only getting busier as a growing population demands more resource extraction and recreation. Meshing these demands with a landscape that provides an essential water source for downstream water users, unique biodiversity attributes, wild space, and stunning scenery requires far more than maintaining the status quo.

What Albertans draw from the East Slopes is substantial — economically, ecologically, socially, and personally. Yet, the rate of reinvestment isn’t proportional to the take, and the signals of overuse are evident. Native trout declines are a message hard to ignore. Their plight is a signal that many of the values Albertans hold for the East Slopes are at risk. In some cases, like flooding, land-use decisions pose a risk to downstream communities.

The East Slopes do not represent an inexhaustible supply of benefits for Albertans. We need to set ecologically relevant limits and thresholds; without them we continue to spiral towards overuse. Investments need to be considered for restoration, especially where limits have been exceeded. Research needs — like better measurements of water quantity and quality, biodiversity, and the effects of climate change — require adequate resources. Central to this process is understanding and untangling the additive effects of every need and desire for the East Slopes.

We have to understand where we are, compare that to where we came from (the historical benchmark), and assess whether our trajectory will take us to a desirable future.

The Alberta Chapter of The Wildlife Society and several funding partners recently commissioned Cumulative Effects of Land Uses and Conservation Priorities in Alberta’s Southern East Slopes to assist in an important dialogue on land-use planning for the region. (https://wildlife.org/wp-content/ uploads/2020/07/Cumulative-Effects- Final-Report-May-8-2020.pdf)

The results indicate cumulative effects present substantial risk to bull trout and Westslope cutthroat trout, now and into the future. As native trout species are a surrogate, or indicator of watershed integrity, this indicates issues with the combined level of past and present land-use activity, and points to concerns with other species, like grizzly bears.

This science-based assessment provides an opportunity to better understand different management scenarios and clearly show expected outcomes. Preventing harmful future development, reclaiming temporary footprints, and managing access have the potential to improve trout performance in these watersheds. With different management trajectories, there is an opportunity to make a real change in terms of conservation.

Cumulative effects modelling shows the status quo approach — continuing to maintain land-use pressures — is taking us down a road of unfavourable, perhaps irreversible, consequences. However, like a road, the future isn’t just a place we’re headed; it can be a place we get to create. Recognizing that, a set of alternatives need to be posed and tested. Stelfox’s development of a method for measuring and tracking cumulative effects helps us with that challenge.

How we move forward in the East Slopes is a test — a test of our ability to be good stewards of an essential Alberta landscape.


Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary

This article originally ran in Nature Alberta Magazine - Sumer 2020