April 24, 2023
Conservation of the Cardinal Divide
Wild Lands Advocate article by: Devon Earl, Kristen Andersen, Beth MacCallum, with support from Elisabeth…
Separating two major watersheds and spanning across the continental divide, the Cardinal Divide area has vital ecological significance.
AWA believes a science-based management plan is required to protect the high biological diversity and sensitivity of the Cardinal Divide.
Cardinal Divide’s picturesque mountain ranges provide important habitat for many wildlife species. PHOTO© C. OLSON
The Cardinal Divide is a vital ecological area located within the Rocky Mountains on the northeastern border of Jasper National Park. Beginning just north of the Bighorn, the Cardinal Divide is 604 km2 of public lands that includes Whitehorse Wildlands Provincial Park and the hamlet of Cadomin. This wilderness area is renowned for its unusually high plant biodiversity, with many rare species calling it home. Coal mining, coupled with unmanaged motorized recreation, have deteriorated this distinctive and sensitive landscape.
AWA’s Cardinal Divide Area of Concern is located southeast of the town of Hinton and east of Jasper National Park. Intermittent coal mining within the area has supported surrounding communities for over a century, with current mining activities taking place within the Cheviot Mine. The Cardinal Divide spans the continental divide which separates two major watersheds; the North Saskatchewan River and the Athabasca River. This region also supports at risk species such as grizzly bears and harlequin ducks.
The Cardinal Divide area includes a small protected area, the 174 km2 Whitehorse Wildland Provincial Park , established in 1998. The majority of this area contains unprotected public lands that are currently exploited for multiple land uses including coal mining and motorized recreation.
Under the Eastern Slopes Policy, the majority of Cardinal Divide has been designated as a Multiple Use Zone. The ‘official’ primary goal of this zone under the Eastern Slopes Policy is to allow the utilization of the full range of resources available to the area with particular emphasis on maintaining the integrity of watersheds and environmental conditions. This zone is accessible to public and industrial use within the management framework of the Coal Branch Sub-regional Integrated Resource Plan.
Under the Land Use Framework, most of the Cardinal Divide is located within the Upper Athabasca Region; a small southern portion of the Cardinal Divide falls under the management framework of the North Saskatchewan Region.
The AER (Alberta Energy Regulator) is the provincial regulatory body that manages and administers a number of statutes and regulations in regards to coal mining developments within the Cardinal Divide. These legislations include but are not restricted to: the Coal Policy, Coal Conservation Act, the Mines & Minerals Act, the Environmental Assessment Regulation and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.
The Whitehorse Wildlands Provincial Park is managed under the Provincial Parks Act, with intentions to: “preserve natural heritage of provincial significance or higher, while supporting outdoor recreation, heritage tourism, and natural heritage appreciation activities that depend upon and are compatible with environmental protection” (Alberta Parks 2001).
In order to safeguard the Cardinal Divide’s irreplaceable biodiversity in perpetuity, AWA urges:
AWA’s Cardinal Divide Area of Concern encompasses approximately 604 km2. of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and is located on the eastern border of Jasper National Park, just southeast of the town of Hinton. The area can be accessed from Highway 40 and is bisected by the Grave Flats Road, which passes through the nearby hamlet of Cadomin and the active Cheviot mine site operated by Teck Resources Limited.
The Cardinal Divide separates the North Saskatchewan and the Athabasca Rivers and contains the headwaters for both of these major watersheds. The two major water bodies flowing through the Cardinal Divide are Whitehorse Creek and the Cardinal River. Whitehorse Creek is a tributary to the McLeod River within the Athabasca Watershed, while the Cardinal River is a tributary to the Brazeau River within the North Saskatchewan Watershed. The Athabasca River flows north and eventually empties into the Arctic Ocean, while the North Saskatchewan River meanders its way east across the prairies to its final destination, the Hudson’s Bay.
Information sourced from the Alberta Government 2000.
The bedrock of the Cardinal Divide area is mostly from the early Mesozoic (65 to 235 millions years) and Paleozoic era (235 to 570 million years). The late Jurassic and early Cretaceous geological periods gave rise to the Nikanassin formation which underlies most of the Cardinal Divide; these strata are predominately composed of sandstone, shales, conglomerates and coal shale of marine and non-marine origin. The Cardinal Divide landscape was sculpted by the last ice age which gave rise to many features such as cirques and u-shaped valleys.
The Cardinal Divide is mostly composed of landscapes which are nationally significant and unprotected. The only protected area within the Cardinal Divide is the Whitehorse Wildland Provincial Park, which has international significance due to its rich biodiversity and has many interesting geological features. The park includes several natural features including Whitehorse Creek, the Cardinal Divide, Tripoli ridge, and the Cadomin Cave.
Outside of the park, Whitehorse Creek, the McLeod River and the Cardinal River are considered environmentally significant areas as they contain important fish habitat and are the headwaters for North Saskatchewan and Athabasca rivers. Maintaining the integrity of these aquatic ecosystems is imperative not only to the health of local wildlife, but also to the ecosystems located downstream.
The Cardinal Divide area is comprised of the Rocky Mountain Natural Region, with a significant portion encompassing the Subalpine Natural Subregion. The Subalpine region almost constitutes the entirety of the Cardinal Divide, with the exception of the far western boundary being indicative of Alberta’s Alpine Natural Subregion.
One of the most exceptional features of the Cardinal Divide is its vast and ecologically rich vegetation communities. With more than 277 plant species recorded, the high biodiversity of theses flora communities are unmatched on a provincial scale, and many plant species are considered to be rare or to have unusual distribution (Alberta Native Plant Council 2018). Current theories suggest that the Late Wisconsinan and postglacial migrations are the natural forces responsible for influencing the vascular flora found in the Cardinal Divide rather that in situ survival by means of a glacial .
Some rare plant species found in this area include:
Alpine: Tree cover is sparse and stunted, but coniferous stands of fir and Englemann spruce are possible. Alpine meadows consist of mountain sagewort, hairy wild rye, black alpine sedge, and white mountain avens.
Subalpine: Coniferous stands including Engelmann spruce, fir, larch and lodgepole pine dominate this area. Birch and willow are common in shrublands and the composition of the understory for tree stands varies between false azalea, white-flowered rhododendron, grouseberry, tall bilberry and five-leaved bramble. Buffalo-berry is also common at lower elevations in lodgepole pine stands.
The wilderness and watersheds of the Cardinal Divide are home to many wildlife species and harbors many unique wildlife ranges.
Birds: Roughly 128 bird species have been observed in this area, some of which are year-round residents. Commonly observed species include horned lark, American dipper, mountain bluebird and Townsend’s warbler. Harlequin ducks have also been observed the Cardinal Divide area. These birds have restrictive habitat requirements, living and breeding only within the riparian areas of mountain and foothills streams (Alberta 2014).
Mammals: Ungulate species such as bighorn sheep, moose, elk and mule deer roam this area along with large predator species such as cougars, wolves and grizzly bears. The Cadomin Cave is a limestone cave that is a known hibernaculum for rare long-legged bats, at risk northern long-eared bats and little brown bats. The area is also a confirmed swarming site for bat species which allows for increased genetic flow and the localization of suitable winter hibernation sites. Furthermore, the Cardinal Divide area has been identified as critical habitat for grizzly bears and as such has been designated as a recovery zone under Alberta’s recovery plan (Alberta 2017). This area also serves as an important migration corridor for grizzly bears traversing different mountain ranges.
Fish: In addition, the watersheds of this area are predominately populated by eastern brook trout (an introduced invasive species), bull trout (threatened), and Athabasca rainbow trout (endangered).
Insects: Although documentation of insect species within this area is poor, many rare butterfly species have been observed such as the Dingy Arctic fritillary( Boloria improba).This species of butterfly does not lay eggs every year, therefore adults are not commonly observed. This species has a restrictive habitat in that it requires Arctic willow for larval food, and is therefore highly sensitive to ecological disruptions within Montane environments.
Historically, the Cardinal Divide area was part of a transportation corridor along the Rocky Mountains, used for hunting, trapping and plant gathering by the Cree, Nakota (stoney) and Saulteaux Nations. The Cardinal Divide area was also one of Alberta’s first, and most remote mining villages with most activity commencing in the early 1900’s.
Recreation throughout the Cardinal Divide includes observing fauna and flora, hiking, canoeing, fishing, camping, and motorized recreation.
The landscape of the Cardinal Divide has been significantly altered due to the cumulative effects of industrial scale logging, oil and gas extraction, motorized recreation, and, predominantly, coal mining.
Main threats from industrial activity include:
• increased access via roads and corridors,
• habitat fragmentation
• road kills,
• noise and general disturbance,
• habitat degradation,
• habitat avoidance,
• loss of habitat, and
• decreased habitat function.
Coal mining began in the Cardinal Divide in the early 1900’s and since that time, the area has been heavily developed, resulting in significant landscape alteration in order to support infrastructure for the mining of metallurgic coal. Initially, extraction methods were confined to underground mines, but over time technology enabled surface or open pit mining, which is a process that removes the soil and rock overlaying the mineral deposits. Despite fluctuations over the years, coal production continues to this day, with current operations being lead by Teck Resources Limited at the Cheviot Mine.
The Cheviot Mine was originally proposed in 1996 by Cardinal River Coals Ltd (CRC) as an open pit surface coal mine and coal processing plant in order to provide metallurgical coal for steel mills. The Cheviot mine was meant to replace the older Luscar Mine and maintain economic benefits to nearby communities; however, it was not developed due to poor economic viability and public opposition. In 2002, the CRC submitted an application to the Alberta Government for an amendment to the existing Cheviot mine permit and sought environmental approval for the operation of the Luscar mine. The amendment was for regulatory approval to build a haulroad, 10 kilometers long, to link the proposed Cheviot mine permit area with the Luscar mine. The road was planned to be adjacent to the McLeod River, and with AER approval, the development area for the haulroad was expanded to include the McLeod River valley. Despite significant omissions in the Environmental Assessment process and court challenges, mining went ahead in 2005.
AWA has opposed the mine throughout its development due to the ecological significance and sensitivity of the Cardinal Divide, as well as proximity of the mine to Jasper National Park and the Whitehorse Creek Wildland Park. The alpine and subalpine communities throughout the Cardinal Divide are unique in composition and extremely vulnerable to change. Land disturbances from coal mining has serious implications for the re-growth of these flora communities, with most alpine and subalpine plant communities requiring many years to re-establish due to the short growing season, and the prohibitive nature of cold local climates. Many of these disturbed areas lack vegetation or contain invasive species, negatively impacting wildlife species that rely on them for forage and habitat. Additionally, coal mining may also contribute to the leaching and bioaccumulation of inorganic selenium in the surrounding environment. Selenium can be released into the environment through waste rock disposal and tailings produced at a mine site. Although this is a natural element, high concentrations of selenium can affect the reproduction success of fish and waterfowl .
Now that mining and reclamation of some sites is underway, AWA maintains that all future coal mining within the Cardinal Divide area must be severely restricted, with restoration efforts focused on re-establishing native habitat of the disturbed mine area. New leases or commercial infrastructure should not be granted in order to protect these highly sensitive and vulnerable natural regions. AWA also believes that continuous environmental monitoring is mandatory and must be maintained by companies in order to accurately identify and mitigate any environmental impacts from industrial activities on surrounding ecosystems.
In recent history, roads and corridors for industrial access have facilitated an increase in Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) recreation in wilderness areas which can have serious impacts on the surrounding ecosystems. The Cardinal Divide Headwaters trail, which is sandwiched between the Jasper National park and the Whitehorse Wildlands Provincial Park, is the only designated OHV trail within the area. High OHV traffic (both legal and illegal), coupled with a lack of enforcement and formal signage has resulted in significant erosion and degradation of this trail and the surrounding landscape. Studies have shown that high impact recreation such as OHV use has considerable negative consequences on soils and vegetation (Farr et al 2017). With continuous soil compaction and vegetation clearing by OHVs both on and off of designated trail systems, the sensitive plant communities of the Cardinal Divide face serious impediments to their regenerative processes and may not be able to re-establish at all, making way for increased erosion and invasive species encroachment. In addition to increased enforcement, signage and improved management of public access to the Cardinal Divide area, AWA believes that protection of the Cardinal Divide must be the top priority, due to its ecological significance. Closure of the Cardinal Headwaters Trail is required as motorized recreation is incompatible with the sensitive nature of this headwaters landscape.
Teck Resources Limited announces Cardinal River Operations has entered care and maintenance with the last coal being mined and processed. AWA responds to a Closing Planning Survey expressing support for adhering to the original reclamation plans and the highest industry standards. AWA believes the landscape should be reclaimed to a state that would allow for reestablishment of the ecological integrity of the area, sustaining healthy native wildlife populations and surrounding communities. Once reclaimed, careful review should be undertaken to determine which land uses and forms of low-impact recreation are compatible with ecosystem outcomes
AWA conducts a Stewardship visit on July 26-27. AWA did not see any reclamation work done, and disagreed with the AER decision to require non-native planting for reclamation work.
AWA made the following stewardship requests:
On October 1, UNESCO World Heritage Committee expresses concerns about Canada’s Rocky Mountain Parks and zeroed in on the Cheviot mine specifically. The Committee requests Canada “to ensure that adverse impacts of the operation of the Cheviot mine on the integrity of the property are minimized and mitigated” and that Canada “keep the World Heritage Centre and IUCN informed of any important changes in the state of conservation of the property.” The persistent international environmental concerns expressed by UNESCO are due to the mine’s location close to the eastern boundary of Jasper National Park, which is part of the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. The mine is also adjacent to Alberta’s Whitehorse Wildland Provincial Park.
On August 17, the Federal Court dismisses a challenge to the approval of the Cheviot coal mine, which had been filed by a coalition of environmental groups representing wildlife and concerned members of the Alberta public. The coalition had applied for a judicial review of the failure of the Minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to comply with duties under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
A key ruling by the federal court was that a new environmental assessment (EA) was not required, even though Elk Valley Coal and its parent companies, Teck Cominco and Fording Canadian Coal Trust, had not included a haul road in the original submission and subsequent EA. Additionally, the court deemed it irrelevant that a haul road was later added to now pass over a causeway/dam, as the dam itself had been assessed previously.
In January, Alberta Environmental Appeals Board (AEAB) Hearing in local representatives appeal of the approvals issued by Alberta Environment for the Cheviot mine haul road.
On November 2, a coalition of Canadian conservation groups, including AWA announces that they are launching another legal challenge of the controversial Cheviot Coal Mine Project underway near Jasper National Park, Alberta. The groups argue that the federal government’s recent authorization of the first part of the mine, called the Cheviot Creek Development, should be quashed because it would result in the destruction of sensitive migratory bird habitat – directly contravening the federal Migratory Bird Conventions Act.
On October 12, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans notifies the conservation coalition that they have granted an Authorization for the first phase of the Cheviot project, the Cheviot Creek development.
In May, a representative of the area is granted an appeal of the Cheviot haul road, as it was deemed his ecotourism operation may be directly affected by the development.
In April, the companies receive approval from the Alberta Energy & Utilities Board to expand the Cheviot mine permit, adding the McLeod River valley to the mine area in order to link Cheviot with the existing Luscar mine infrastructure located 22 km to the north.
In February, the parent companies holding the coal leases for the proposed Cheviot mine, Luscar and Consol, have reached an agreement to merge with Fording River Coal, the largest coal company in Canada. The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) requests that Cardinal River Coals Ltd. provide information on all potential environmental impacts of their revised proposal for the Cheviot coal mine and not just the industrial haul road the company has applied for.
In July, CRC submits an application to the Alberta Government for an amendment to the existing Cheviot mine permit and seeks the environmental approval for the operation of the Luscar mine. The amendment is to seek regulatory approval to construct a private haulroad to link the proposed Cheviot mine permit area with the existing Luscar mine permit area and will be adjacent to McLeod River.
In October, parent companies announce indefinite postponement of Cheviot and closure of Luscar Mine.
On September 12, the federal-provincial Joint Review Panel recommends approving the Cheviot open-pit coal mine.
In spring, the AWA coalition announces their new focus will be aimed at protecting the integrity of Jasper National Park and establishing a provincial Wildland Park encompassing the critical wildlife habitat of the Mountain Park area.
The Federal Court of Appeal dismisses Cardinal River Coals Ltd.’s appeal of a 1999 Federal Court ruling which struck down the federal authorization for its proposed Cheviot Mine in Alberta, adjacent to Jasper National Park.
A Federal Court Hearing proceeds regarding the lawsuit launched by the ENGOs.
A new public hearing regarding supplemental environmental review of mine application is held with the original Joint Panel. This supplemental review is the result of the successful lawsuit launched by the AWA Coalition and Canadian Natural Federation (CNF).
On September 8, the joint federal-provincial review of the proposed Cheviot open-pit coal mine near Jasper National Park re-opens with a pre-hearing meeting in Hinton. The Joint Review Panel hears from the conservation groups on their recommendations for properly completing the review of the mine application.
On April 9, the Federal Court rules in favor of the AWA Coalition, determining that the joint federal-provincial environmental review did not comply with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA).
In December, the AWA Coalition wins the appeal for a new trial regarding the Cheviot Coal Mine development UNESCO World Heritage Committee urges Canada to reconsider 1997 mine approval & work on alternatives with Alberta due to the proximity of the Cheviot mine site to Jasper National Park, a World Heritage Site.
In October, the AWA coalition (CPAWS, JEA, Pembina) and Canadian Natural Federation launches (files) a lawsuit against the Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Joint Review Panel as the review did not comply with requirements of CEAA.
In August, the Alberta Government approves the development of the Cheviot Mine.
Cardinal River Coals Ltd (CRC) proposes an open pit surface coal mine and coal processing plant to be known as the Cheviot Mine, backed by Edmonton Based Luscar Ltd. and CONSOL Energy Canada Ltd. The mine is to be located on public land in the heart of the Cardinal Divide region 70km south of Hinton and 2 km from Jasper National Park boundary. The $250 million mine project is to secure 450 permanent positions over 20 years and would continue to supply metallurgical coal (coking coal) primarily to steel mills in Asia, approximately 3.2 million clean metric tonnes per year. The Cheviot project is set to replace the aging and depleting Luscar
Mine operations located 22 km to the north. Luscar coal reserves are depleting and require the establishment of Cheviot to maintain workforce and supply their export customers. Upon approval, mine development would begin in 1999.
The old Luscar town site becomes the Luscar Ltd. headquarters for open pit mining operated by Cardinal River Coals Ltd. Mining in the area was for coking coal to export to Asian steel mills.
Mountain Park mining site is closed down and the town of Luscar and Mountain Park are entirely abandoned.
Surface mining begins in the area with underground mining ceasing entirely.
Original underground mine at Luscar opens.
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