February 21, 2024
Bordering on the eastern shore of Lesser Slave Lake, the ecologically rich Marten Mountain wilderness expands past lush boreal forest into the gentle slopes of Alberta’s lower foothills.
AWA believes that given the high level of biodiversity represented within the Marten Mountain wilderness, the area deserves thoughtful management to conserve this distinctive ecological haven.
AWA believes that given the high level of biodiversity represented within the Marten Mountain wilderness deserves thoughtful management to conserve this distinctive ecological haven. Photo ©: AWA FILES
AWA’s Marten Mountain Area of Concern is situated in central Alberta, and encompasses the eastern-most segment of Alberta’s Foothills Natural Region. Starting from the white sandy beaches of Lesser Slave Lake, the Marten Mountain wilderness extends eastward past boreal forests patterned with wetlands into the gentle slopes of the foothills. This unique landscape displays an incredible amount of biodiversity, in addition to providing important habitat for many migrant songbird species. Expanding commercial and industrial activities from surrounding landscapes threatens the integrity of this distinctive ecological community.
With the exception of the Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, most of AWA’s Marten Mountain Area of Concern is unprotected public lands within Alberta’s Lower Foothills Natural Subregion, directly north of the town of Swan Hills. Oil and gas developments coupled with commercial ventures at Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park support the surrounding communities of Marten Mountain. This wilderness represents a transition between Alberta’s foothills and boreal forests, and therefore, has unique flora and fauna in addition to providing habitat for at risk grizzly bear populations.
The majority of Marten Mountain is unprotected public lands that are subject to a multiple land use designation which includes recreation, commercial, and industrial developments. A small protected area, the Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, is situated along the western extent of this Area of Concern.
Currently, most of the Marten Mountain wilderness has no formal management framework. Once completed, this area will be managed under the Upper Athabasca Regional Plan within the Land-use Framework. By means of implementing the Land Use Framework, the Government of Alberta is “committed to addressing cumulative impacts on the environment and to managing social, economic and environmental realities and priorities in a holistic manner.”
The Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park ,which was established in 1966, is 77km2 in size and is the only designated protected area within the Marten Mountain wilderness. The provincial park is managed under the legislation of the Provincial Parks Act with objective to: “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).
The entirety of Marten Mountain is situated within the Green Zone of Alberta (forested portion), where public land is managed for recreation, natural resources, and ecological goods and services. This area has minimal public settlements and permits industrial and forestry developments. Agricultural activities are generally excluded from the Green Area with the exception of grazing leases. Management and administration of public lands within Alberta is largely overseen by provincial regulatory bodies such as the Alberta Energy Regulator and the departments of Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Energy, and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. Public land dispositions are regulated under multiple pieces of legislation that includes, but is not limited to, the Public Lands Act, Public Lands Administration Regulation Recreational Access Regulations, and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (Alberta 2014).
In order to protect the natural state of Marten Mountain from intensifying commercial and industrial impacts, AWA believes that we must:
AWA’s Marten Mountain Area of Concern encompasses approximately 723 km2 within the Foothills and Boreal Forest Natural Regions, bordering the eastern shores of Lesser Slave Lake. This distinctive natural area can be accessed from either Highway 88 or Highway 2 heading northwest from the city of Edmonton or directly north of the town of Swan Hills.
Marten Mountain is located within the Athabasca River Basin of Alberta, with the eastern portion of this wilderness boarding the white sandy beaches of Lesser Slave Lake. The Lesser Slave Lake is the headwaters of the Lesser Slave River, which is the largest watercourse within the Marten Mountain wilderness, and is also the major tributary of the Athabasca River. Other notable water bodies within this include Lily Lake, Muskeg creek, Willow river, Pastecho River, Fawcett River and Marten lakes.
The topographical features and watersheds of Marten Mountain were influenced by glacial advances and retreats that occurred in this region during the last ice age. Sediment deposits by glacial tills and glacier meltwaters formed many of the waterbodies found in this region such as the Marten Lakes and Lily Lake. The Laramide orogeny period, which began in the late Cretaceous epoch (70-80 million years ago), is responsible for the mountain building process of the area with the bedrock of the uplands being classified as a part of the Wapiti Formation (Paulen 2003). Most of the soils found in the Lesser Slave Lake and Marten Mountain are classified in the Luvisolic and Brunisolic orders which are predominately found in forested areas.
The Marten Mountain wilderness includes the eastern-most section of Alberta’s Foothills Natural Region, and therein, a unique opportunity to conserve a haven of foothills and boreal forest ecology. This distinctive ensemble of vegetative communities offers an array of habitats for wildlife species, which includes many migrant songbird species. The observed biodiversity of Marten Mountain wilderness and underrepresentation of the Foothills Natural Region within Alberta’s protected areas network renders these landscapes provincially and internationally significant. The Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park is currently the only protected area within the Marten Mountain wilderness.
Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park
Information sourced from the Alberta Government
The Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, which was established in 1966, is approximately 77km2 in size, and is the only formally protected area within AWA’s Marten Mountain Area of Concern. The Park contains a high diversity of migrant songbirds, in addition to natural white sand beaches and a sand dunes complex, both of which are a part of Devonshire beach located in the southern portion of the park. There are numerous hiking trails within the park which include the Lily Lake, Trans Canada, Jack Pine, Whispering Sands and Songbirds Trail. There is also multiple interpretive activities organized in the park, as well as many campgrounds and supporting facilities for the Gilwood Golf Course and Country Club. Infrastructure for fishing and boating opportunities also exists within the park.
Marten Mountain Viewpoint, a summit of 938 meters above sea level, offers panoramic views of Lesser Slave Lake and the surrounding foothills and boreal forest. The elevation of the mountain creates a distinctive microclimate which supports numerous plant species that are typically limited to Alberta’s foothills such as lodgepole pine, devil’s club and running raspberry.
The majority of AWA’s Marten Mountain Area of Concern is located within the most eastern extent of Alberta’s Foothills within the Lower Foothills Natural Subregion. A small western segment of this wilderness is representative of the Boreal Forest Natural Region, more specifically, the Central Mixedwood Natural Subregion.
Information sourced from the Government of Alberta
The Marten Mountain wilderness represents a transition area between Alberta’s Boreal and Foothills Forests. These distinctive, yet intermingled vegetation communities display disjunct populations of lodgepole pine, devil’s club and dwarf bramble, in addition to providing habitat for many species. The area also has some rare plant species such as three-leaved sedge and beech fern.
Lower Foothills: This Subregion is defined by forest stands of white spruce and aspen, with lodgepole pine and jack pine most commonly found on Marten Mountain. Common shrubs and herb species include sedges, buckbean, cottongrass, scheuchzeria, bunchberry, green alder, and reed grass. This region also has ground cover composed of species of moss such as warnstorfia moss and streetside sphagnum.
Central Mixedwood: This Subregion is defined by old growth forest stands of deciduous and coniferous trees species such as aspen, white spruce, and jack pine, and is generally interspersed with floating and patterned fens with black spruce. The understory species common to this area are low-bush cranberry, prickly rose, and green alder accompanies by herbs such as showy aster, wild sarsaparilla and hairy wild rye.
The Marten Mountain area is home to many animal species, with an exceptional diversity in migrant songbirds.
Birds within the Marten Mountain wilderness include bald eagles, great grey owl, northern hawk, barred owl, cape may, canada warblers, Lincoln’s sparrow, rose-breasted grosbeak, American redstart, and least flycatcher.
Mammals species include large predators such as cougars, wolves, black bears and grizzly bears, and a suite of fur-bearing species such as martens and beavers.
Walleye and northern pike are commonly found within the waterways of Marten Mountain.
The Marten Mountain wilderness has been identified and classified as a support zone for threatened grizzly bear populations within Alberta. The Alberta Government has established that this zone with the intent to “support the population of grizzly bears in the Recovery Zone by creating a priority area for the management of bear attractants and other sources of human-wildlife conflict adjacent to the Recovery Zone thereby improving the survival rate of grizzly bears, in particular females and females with cubs, that are moving between the Recovery Zone and the Support Zone” (Alberta Government 2016).
Marten Mountain and its surrounding landscapes are the traditional territory for the Sawridge Cree First Nation, an original signatory to Treaty #8. The Sawridge Reserve, which covers an area of approximately 2,143 hectares, resides on the southeast portion of Lesser Slave Lake.
The Marten Mountain wilderness and Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park accommodates a variety of recreation opportunities, including:
The Marten Mountain wilderness and surrounding landscapes face continuous threats from the cumulative impacts from oil and gas developments and industrial scale clearcut logging.
The main threats from industrial activity include, but are not limited to:
Restricting the sale of new leases, surface disturbances, cutblocks and access infrastructure within the Marten Mountain wilderness would prioritize the natural integrity of the area. A management plan derived from an ecosystem ethic would aid in defining and implementing disturbance limits and thresholds that would be conducive to the conservation initiative for Marten Mountain. In addition, this approach could also facilitate reclamation of previously disturbed landscapes within Marten Mountain, promoting the re-growth of vegetative communities, and maintaining a high level of biodiversity. AWA believes that without these standards, the continual intrusion of industrial clearcut logging, and oil and gas developments will result in the decimation of this unique biological haven within Alberta.
Given the serious underrepresentation of the Foothills Natural Region within the protected areas network of Alberta and the high biodiversity of flora and fauna species, AWA believes protection of Marten Mountain should be expanded in order to conserve this precedence rich area within Alberta, limiting any commercial development within the park.
Forestry companies Tolko Industries Ltd., West Fraser Mills Ltd. and Vanderwell Contractors Ltd. sign a new Marten Hills Forest Management Agreement for the Slave Lake region. The agreement allows harvesting of trees for the next 20 years.
Oil harvesting continues despite production slowing in other areas. The companies in the area are reported pumping 14,000-30,000 barrels a day. Construction on a pipeline through Marten Hills begins by Rangeland Midstream Canada Ltd.
Crude oil that can be extracted cheaply is discovered southwest of Fort McMurray, in the lands near Marten Hills. Several companies, including Deltastream, Cenovus Energy Inc and Spur Petroleum Ltd. begin drilling in the area.
On June 29, Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park is established.