Couple says Alberta’s new direction on coal threatens livelihood of third-generation ranch

Plateau Mountain is the first thing John Smith looks at every day on his ranch near Nanton, Alta.

“They’re a barometer of weather. That’s where our chinook arches are. You can tell when there’s big wind coming, they blow snow off, and they’re just cool to look at,” Smith said.

The 48-year-old third-generation rancher named his business after it — Plateau Cattle Company.

He has nearly 600 head of cattle and 1,500 acres near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. If open pit mining happens on the eastern slopes, it threatens his operation.

“Thirty-five per cent of our cattle go up there,” Smith said. “So in these COVID times, I’m sure everybody understands what a 35 per cent reduction in wage or the bottom line of a business [does]. So yeah, it’s definitely a threatening thing.”

Along with his wife Laura Laing, Smith is pushing back against the provincial government’s decision to revoke a 1976 policy that kept coal mines out of most of the province’s Rocky Mountains and Foothills.

WATCH | Why Alberta is looking to the Rockies for coal:

Alberta has reshaped a decades-old balance in the Rockies and Foothills, rescinding its 1976 Coal Development Policy, opening the door to more open-pit mines in the mountains. 4:03

One mine is under review, and others could follow. Some residents of former mining towns have applauded the prospect of potential jobs returning to their communities.

But others, including Smith, worry about what the change might have on quantity and quality of local water — which at the moment runs good and clear.

“Every kid in agriculture has always been told this. Your grandfathers tell you, if you haven’t got water, you haven’t got [nothing],” Smith said.

Laing said speaking up against the changes is not a comfortable thing to do, but it’s important.

“We’ve been challenged in lots of adversities. We’re fighting for a bigger picture here. Everybody’s water, the landscapes, the mountains,” Laing said.

The couple’s plight has been boosted by star power recently. 

Alberta-born country stars Corb Lund and Paul Brandt posted their feelings on social media, saying they oppose coal development in the region.

WATCH | Country star Corb Lund comes out against proposed coal mines:

The Alberta musician is lending his voice to the fight against coal policy changes implemented by the UCP government last year. (Video: Corb Lund/Facebook) 6:14

“I know a lot of people are afraid to speak out. It’s not easy, I get it. But I’m so glad they’re taking the lead and sharing the story,” Laing said.

The mayor of High River, Craig Snodgrass, doesn’t want it either.

He said provincial maps show Category 2 lands where mines will be allowed stretch into Kananaskis Country and the headwaters of the Highwood River and Cataract Creek.

“Reinstate the policy, the protections in these [Category 2] lands and let’s have a discussion, and we’ll give you the chance openly to prove to us that everything’s going to be good,” Snodgrass said.

Snodgrass put forward a motion this week to send the province a letter of opposition. It was unanimously approved by town council.

David Luff is a former assistant deputy minister and was a resource planner for former premier Peter Lougheed’s government when the policy was created.

He said the process the United Conservative government used was ethically and morally wrong, adding the policy was based on a vision for a long-term priority. 

“The eastern slopes were to be recognized as having the highest priority for watershed protection, recreation and tourism,” Luff said.

For Smith, who would like to see his family’s ranch reach a fourth generation, the situation is one that weighs heavy.

“This place can provide a living for multiple families for a hundred or two hundred years,” he said. 

“I don’t think there’s a coal mine that can do and create what agriculture is doing here.”

Respresentatives with Alberta’s energy and environment ministries were unavailable to comment for this story.

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