There aren’t many infrastructure projects that date back 140 years, which is what makes Calgary’s ring road so unique.

A crucial land deal between the Tsuu T’ina Nation and the province was settled in 2013, but the province is facing another problem. The southwest portion of the ring road will cut through the southwest corner of Weaselhead Park, which will lose approximately six acres of its 237 hectares of protected land to support secondary roads, a move that displeases the Weaselhead Preservation Society (WPS).Map outlining the construction plans impacting Weaselhead park and river re-alignment. Original photo courtesy of Alberta Transportation, illustration by Courtney Ingram.

Paul Finkleman, president of the WPS, has been very outspoken about his disapproval of the road, saying, “It’s going to be quite devastating, as far as sound goes and visuals.”

Finkleman says the noise pollution alone is upsetting enough, but they are also very concerned about Alberta Transportation’s plans to reroute a portion of the Elbow River to accommodate the freeway.

Initially, the WPS argued for an open span bridge that would allow wildlife to safely cross under the road without disturbing traffic. However, the WPS lost that battle due to cost and safety regulations. Instead, the province plans to use a berm cut-and-fill design, which would result in a much smaller bridge.

The current river valley is nearly one kilometre wide. After the river is realigned and the bridge is built, the opening will be reduced to 100 metres.

Finkleman is not alone in his criticism of what he calls “the smallest bridge, cheapest bridge possible.”

“This is one of major river valleys coming into Calgary and supports a diversity of wildlife, so narrowing the opening from one km to 100-metres is unfortunate,” said Tracy Lee, senior project manager at the Miistakis Institute, a research institute located at Mount Royal University, in a written statement.

Dorothy Hill, an associate biology professor at Mount Royal University and interim assistant director of the Institute for Environmental Sustainability, says, “Wildlife like deer and moose will have difficulty moving freely between the Weaselhead and the Tsuu T’ina lands because now they will have to cross the ring road. Wildlife on the road could create serious accident hazards for drivers.”

She says this problem could be mitigated if the bridge includes underpasses and overpasses, similar to ones near Banff.

“This thing is being built at the lowest tender because the government didn’t have that much money,” said Finkleman, calling the provincial payments to the Tsuu T’ina a “bribe.”

A rich history

Although the planning and construction of the ring road began a little more recently, the land has been a topic of conversation for more than a century.

In 1877, representatives of Queen Victoria and seven First Nations, such as Tsuu T’ina (then known as Sarcee), Blackfoot and Stoney, signed Treaty 7. The agreement required the tribes to surrender their rights to traditional territory in return for a newly designated reserve, annual payments from the crown while retaining hunting and trapping rights.

The Tsuu T’ina Nation moved to their new and current reserve, located approximately 8 km southwest of Fort Calgary, precisely the land the Province has been negotiating to build the ring road on for years.

Fast forward to 1952 when Calgary city planners produced the first design for a major road circling the city. The proposed road would accommodate access to the north and west corridors of the city while avoiding the busy downtown area. This was also the first time the term “ring road” was used by city officials.

The City of Calgary’s preliminary road plan released to public in 1957. Photo courtesy of Jesse Salus/calgaryringroad.com

After decades of planning and the building of the northwest, northeast and southeast legs of the road, city officials sought to complete the southwest leg that would finally complete the full ring. The city believed that the best route was through Tsuu T’ina land.

In 2004, then-Chief Sanford Big Plume of the Tsuu Tʼina Nation and then-Premier Ralph Klein signed an agreement to begin discussions on the ring road. The province also purchased and took control of the right-of-way.

However, on June 30, 2009, a final agreement of land and compensation was rejected by 60.5 per cent of Tsuu T’ina voters in a referendum. Five years dedicated to finalizing the deal were suddenly down the drain.

Despite the Tsuu T’ina Nation saying they were open to renegotiations, the province decided it was best to put those negotiations to bed and to focus on ‘Plan B.’

Plan B was unveiled in January 2011 and included five alternate routes. In June 2011, the Tsuu T’ina Nation took a poll of their members to re-open talks on the road. The poll revealed that 68.5 per cent were open to discussions. By September 2012, negotiations were confirmed to be ongoing.

A final agreement between the Tsuu T’ina Nation and the province was signed in November 2013. The Nation will receive 5,338 acres of crown land located west of their current reserve, $275 million in cash, and more than $65 million to relocate houses, businesses and roads.

Constructors offer no reassurance

On Nov. 2, the WPS held their annual general meeting and KGL Constructors, a partnership between three companies (Kiewit, Graham and Ledcor) who is in charge of building the road, presented their designs.

KGL representatives assured the attendees that the bridge over the river has passed the requirements for wildlife passage. They also said that “the intention of the design is to mimic the existing channel.”

The full ring road design, spanning over 100 km. Photo courtesy of Alberta Transportation.

The thousands of trees to be cut down for the road will also be re-used for the realignment of the river.

Despite KGL’s promises, the WPS is still concerned about the impact on the wildlife.

Finkleman says the noise pollution from vehicles will drive away birds and ruin the natural sounds that make the park special.

Gus Yaki, a naturalist and bird expert, runs bird classes at the park a few times a year. He says, “the sound detracts from us hearing the birds, but more importantly, it also detracts from the birds hearing each other.

“When a yellow warbler is singing to attract a mate, if that mate can’t hear that male singing, that male may end up without mate and therefore, you could lose that population in the Weaselhead.”

Although the impacts aren’t fully evident yet, Yaki believes that over time many species will be lost due to the road.

WPS takes the problem into their own hands

According to KGL Constructures’ website, the entire southwest project will include “31 kilometres of six and eight-lane divided highway, 14 interchanges, one road flyover, one railway crossing (flyover), 47 bridges, one culvert set, one tunnel, and three river crossings over the Elbow River and Fish Creek.”

The cost will be split between 60 per cent paid for by the province and 40 per cent paid for by Mountain View partners (KGL). The federal government has also committed to paying up to 25 per cent of the province’s bill.

To keep Alberta Transportation and KGL Constructors in check, the WPS began a research project with scholars at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology to monitor the environmental impacts of the road.

Starting in January 2014, the case study began tracking wildlife movement in the park. The study will monitor their habits before, during and after the road is completed.

Sarah Nevill, executive director of the WPS, says the research will hopefully help mitigate any problems occurring before they become too severe.

For example, if the new bridge ends up becoming a barrier for deer, causing them to cross the highway and risk injury or death, the WPS could present this data to Alberta Transportation and request changes be made to the underpasses.

Another option is building a noise barrier to protect birds, but Nevill isn’t certain if that will be enough.

Nevill says that the environmental impact assessment didn’t consider the impact the massive project will have on the people visiting the park. As a result, the WPS will be conducting a study, funded by the Calgary Foundation, to analyze how the attitudes of the park visitors change over the next five years and whether they value the park differently after construction is completed.

The dieselhead perspective

Although the WPS are unhappy with the construction of the road, some Calgarians are glad to finally have a more convenient route around the city.

Parker Sakatch, who lives in the northwest and is a frequent commuter to the southwest, says the new leg of the ring road will be a perfect alternative to his current route from Sarcee Trail to Glenmore Trail, to 14th Street and then Anderson Road to Macleod Trail.

Sakatch also called out the WPS, saying, “The ring road is expensive as it is, and is an amazing show of co-operation between the Indigenous people and other Albertans, so why do we keep adding controversy to the deal of the decade?”

As for the wildlife, he isn’t very concerned.

“People forget how big the Prairies around us are. There are so many places for these birds to go.”

Paige Cook, another frequent commuter from the northwest to the southwest, says she currently detours through Springbank to avoid the heavy traffic on Sarcee Trail.

She adds that if one more road is needed “to fix all the traffic issues and create easy travel, then so be it.”

Despite citizens saying they would prefer a road over a park, Finkleman continues to stand by his position: “Great cities have great parks, great cities don’t have great freeways, nobody says that.”

The WPS encourages those who are displeased with the environmental impacts of the road to voice their concerns to city and government officials.

cingram@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for the story is Brendan Stasiewich, bstasiewich@cjournal.ca