Stickin It To The Man – my life with CPAWS

by Sarah Elmeligi

For three years I was the Senior Conservation Planner for the Southern Alberta Chapter of CPAWS; I would actually introduce myself as the Senior Conservation DOer because that’s how I saw myself.

What do I love most about CPAWS? It’s an organization that gets stuff done. I loved being a part of that.

Some large, National environment organizations spend a lot of time and money in administration and overhead – being large and National isn’t easy. But at CPAWS Southern Alberta, we were all about doing. Amongst my peers at multi-stakeholder meetings, I quickly got the reputation for being the “action-taker”, the one who would challenge and push my peers to take the next step to actually doing something to improve on-the-ground habitat management or protection.

Sometime this would involve Sticking It To The Man.

To me, Sticking it to the man involves putting forward a strong conservation solution and not backing down from it. It involves creatively working with Governments and industry to implement those solutions on the ground. It means defining your hill to die on and not backing off of that. It means be smart, prepared, articulate, respectful, and ready to defend your position with strong science and public support. It was the mind-set that I went to work with every day.

For years, CPAWS Southern Alberta has been working with dozens of other groups to protect the Castle Special Place, Alberta’s biodiversity hotspot north of Waterton Glacier National Park. Obtaining legislated protection for the Castle was one of my main projects.

In 2011, clear-cut logging plans were released for the Castle. These clear-cuts stood to dramatically impact grizzly bear habitat security, destroy cutthroat and bulltrout spawning streams, further sediment waterways, decrease water quality and quantity for over 2 million people downstream, and negatively impact the public’s recreation experience. CPAWS Southern Alberta and our partners fought this logging for years. There were meetings with bureaucrats and politicians, public awareness campaigns, media attention, scientific reports, rallies at Government buildings, protests in the streets, and even a law suit by one of our partner organizations. We invested so much in to the project and so many times along the way I felt sure we would win and get the Castle protected.

The day trees started to fall, I cried.

People tell you not to get emotionally attached to this work. That working as an environmentalist is hard, and that sometimes you will lose.

All good on paper, but when it comes right down to it, it’s impossible not to develop an attachment. It’s impossible not to fall in love with every aspect of the wilderness that you defend and fight for daily. After years of hiking and fighting for the Castle, how could I not love it?

The other thing that you learn in the environmental movement is that giving up is not an option. There were times when I thought about giving up on the Castle, but I couldn’t even begin to define what that meant. So I give up. Then what? Just walk away? Let them finish clear-cutting some of Alberta’s most important wildlife habitat and water source?

Not even an option.

So after some time to adjust to this new reality, my various partners and I got straight back to it. No way would we let this 3 year logging plan finish. No way would we let ‘them’ think they had won. In a few months, the first part of the logging was done, but we weren’t. We kept fighting, trying to get the rest of the logging cancelled.

A few months later, we got a call from the Minister’s office asking if someone would be willing to do a helicopter flight over the Castle with the Minister to look at the logging that had been done. I prepared for days – four hours with the Minister isn’t an opportunity that comes up every day.

The helicopter ride was interesting to say the least. After years of working with a landscape I had only ever hiked through, I could see the Castle from the air and what I saw was amazing. Some of it was expected: large clear-cuts, quad trails, and a scarred landscape. But I also saw something I had lost sight of: vast wilderness stretching far to the Continental Divide, pieces of intact forest and open alpine meadows, and rivers and creeks of all sizes. I saw something worth saving and possible to restore.

Working in environmental conservation means spending a lot of time focusing on what needs fixing and how it should be fixed. With the Castle, I had lost sight of the fact there was still some intact wilderness worth saving. That all was not lost.

The flight was set up to show “the environmentalist” (me) that clear-cut logging wasn’t all that bad and could be done in a sustainable way. All it did was increase my resolve to protect the Castle in its entirety and I came back even more determined to do just that.

Working with our various partners and people just as passionate as me, we continued to Stick it to the Man. We continued to show that we weren’t going to give up on the Castle just because a few trees had been cut.

Finally, we got some movement. About a month after our helicopter flight, the Alberta Government announced that all future logging in the Castle would be put on hold until a regional planning process could be completed. It wasn’t a guarantee that logging would stop permanently and it wasn’t a guarantee for protection, but it bought us more time. Now we are working to influence the regional plan and get protection for the Castle through that process.

I have come to realize that rarely do you get guarantees in Alberta conservation, and as a conservationist you have to accept that. Sometimes you get a decision postponed, sometimes you get a policy approved, and sometimes you get a meeting with a Minister. Individually, these things don’t feel like much and you can feel like you’re not having the impact you desire.

But when the phone rang and the media wantedmy comment regarding the postponement of logging in the Castle, I smiled because I realized something: we made them blink. We stuck it to the man and it stuck. Damn straight!

Sometimes you lose and sometimes you win. Those wins are what made working for CPAWS the most rewarding and challenging job I’ve ever had. Even though I’m no longer on the CPAWS pay role, I know that I will always be part of the CPAWS family.

CPAWS – gettin’ it done. Protecting wilderness for people and critters piece by piece. Being effective. And Stickin’ it to the Man.