Alberta’s Biodiversity Monitoring Institute maps industrial impacts

The University of Alberta group says 94 per cent of the province's ecosystems are intact

May 01, 2010

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Jim Herbers sees the environmental debate through a scientific lens
Photograph by Bluefish

In a spartan closet of an office, shoehorned into a cramped corner among basement biology laboratories at the University of Alberta, Jim Herbers occasionally sets scholarship aside for a moment of self-indulgence. He engages in a professional naturalist’s version of the national trumpeting about Canadian athletes’ gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

“This is world-class and we are proud of that,” Herbers says in between dry descriptions of his technical work for the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. “There isn’t better science on the planet.”

His time out for venting is brief. He knows better than to expect public cheers. He is no armchair environmental general armed with foundation grants and a publicity budget to organize fashionable causes. He has a green job. But the work is painstaking fact-finding under relentlessly critical eyes of professional peers. It goes with his turf that his results set him apart from environmental celebrities who rivet popular attention on symbols of the industrial world’s failings such as hungry polar bears or oil-stained ducks.

“We don’t make value judgments,” Herbers says in explaining the role of a professional nature observation team. “If the conditions we measure decline by 30 per cent, we’re not there to say that’s bad. We just tell it like it is.”

It takes a scientist to appreciate and fully use the data warehouse that Herbers is building as the biodiversity institute’s information center director. He admits, “The media don’t believe us,” when he recalls the stony silence that greeted results of the operation’s first survey, a four-year project summarized by a 2009 report.

The institute found that the natural ecology is still 94 per cent intact in a 93,458-square-kilometer swath of the northeastern Alberta bitumen mining and forest-products industry belt known as the Lower Athabasca Planning Region, an area of woods and bogs three times bigger than Vancouver Island. The human activity “footprint” covers seven per cent.

The disbelief that greeted the report is rooted in jarring contrasts between popular and scientific views, which look at industry and its effects through radically different lenses.

A year after National Geographic magazine’s grim photo spread on open-pit bitumen mining, 56 green organizations put an advertisement built on nasty oil sands imagery in the March edition of the American entertainment industry’s publicity mainstay, Variety. Using a fisheye-lens photo cropped to show a bitumen mine apparently sprawling out to limitless horizons, the groups called for the blockbuster science fiction film Avatar to win Academy Awards for expressing their self-image as eco-heroes using superior capabilities to lead noble savages in the fight against planet-killer mining in “Canada’s Avatar Sands.”

Herbers sees and accepts, as plainly as any critic of Alberta, the bleak reality depicted by the close-up pictures invariably employed to tell environmental news. “We’re not trying to say the open-pit mine site is 94 per cent intact,” he says. “The mine site is in fact zero per cent intact.”

But his scientific portrait of the bitumen belt looks very different from broadcast or Internet newsreels because the biodiversity institute is a pioneer at developing wide-angle views of entire regions. The big pictures show industrial sites, and any disruption that spills out from them, in proportional relationships to their surroundings.

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