Spotted with hundreds of wetlands, lakes and streams, and home to diverse wildlife and native plants, the Beaver Hills Biosphere is a hub of nature and culture just east of Edmonton. The region was recognized by UNESCO in 2016 as a biodiverse and culturally significant site, and since 2019, the Beaver Hills Biosphere Reserve Association works to ensure these invaluable systems continue to flourish.
Alberta is home to two of Canada’s 19 biospheres—Waterton Biosphere Reserve and Beaver Hills Biosphere. Fortunately for us, our Resilient Rurals partner communities live right next door to the beautiful Beaver Hills. We sat down with Brian Ilnicki, Executive Director of the Beaver Hills Biosphere, to learn more about the role of a biosphere in bringing nature and people together.
“At a high level, a biosphere is a learning place for sustainable development. It gives people an opportunity to explore living and working in harmony with nature, but it's not just about setting aside land or becoming a protected area. The Beaver Hills is a region the community has determined is important. The Beaver Hills Biosphere is the result of people coming together to help provide local solutions to local issues or pursue opportunities in this important region. We focus on conserving and enhancing biodiversity, and we also work to enhance cultural diversity.”
Beaver Hills: Where nature, community and industry live in harmony
The Beaver Hills Biosphere is a 1600 km2 region east of Edmonton. It covers portions of five rural municipalities—Lamont County, Strathcona County, Leduc County, Beaver County and Camrose County. Among these counties are many small towns and villages, and a variety of industries fairly typical of Central Alberta. Land in the Biosphere has been developed for agricultural crops and livestock, as well as for a variety of oil and gas extraction and transport activities.
Land has also been set aside for protection. For example, Elk Island National Park, Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Recreation Area and Miquelon Lake Provincial Park serve as centrepieces of the region’s vast ecological network. Land trusts, including Edmonton and Area Land Trust and Nature Conservancy of Canada, are also actively at work tending various conservation properties within the Biosphere.
The Role of the Beaver Hills Biosphere Association
One of the key functions of a biosphere is to support collaboration. Brian explains that the Association does this by helping to convene key stakeholders around specific environmental or cultural issues, like environmental change, land reclamation or tourism, and to look for opportunities to generate applied research and shared knowledge that can inform decisions that offer local solutions to global challenges.
“We do a lot, but we’re also cautious of duplicating the effort of others. That’s a tenant of our organizational ethos—if others are doing work in the Biosphere, we won’t duplicate it, but we will help to make connections in support of that work.”
So, for example, although the Association isn’t in the business of securing land, they will assist other organizations to do so. Similarly, if municipal representatives and policy writers need assistance with policy writing, the Association will facilitate integral connections.
“Inclusive engagement is one of the Biosphere’s guiding principles. By bringing people together around common issues and having a conversation, we aim to establish a shared knowledge network that works collaboratively to address these issues.”
How does maintaining and restoring natural ecosystems in the Biosphere support climate adaptation and resilience?
Ecosystem services are those seemingly simple processes nature provides that we may or may not take for granted. They include providing clean air, clean water, sequestering carbon, and sheltering wildlife habitat. Brian, together with the Association team, is raising awareness of the value of these services to communities and industry in the Biosphere. “What we’re trying to do is make community members, decision makers and elected officials aware that the region’s natural assets, like wetlands or native stands of spruce or aspen forest, or grasslands, all play a role in supporting their needs.”
What climatic changes are happening in the Biosphere?
Today, the Biosphere is roughly 2°C warmer than it was 100 years ago, and early trend forecasting predicts temperatures will continue to increase. Scientists studying the area are also forecasting precipitation forms will change—the region may not see as much snowfall for example, but more extreme spring and summer rain events.
Wetlands and surface ponds: built-in flood mitigators Maintaining surface water and wetland features within the Biosphere will be critically important for regional climate adaptation. Wetlands not only support biodiversity, but they also play a key role in ground water recharge and reducing flood risks. As precipitation continues to change in the Biosphere, and as more extreme precipitation events occur, well-maintained wetlands will help to reduce flooding and the associated damage to infrastructure.
The value of restoring riparian areas for climate mitigation
A riparian area is essentially the interface between a natural water body, like a stream, wetland or lake, and dry land. These areas are dense with biodiversity and vegetation that soaks up water like a sponge. The Biosphere is covered in these habitats, and Brian explains communities need riparian areas intact to help minimize climate impacts.
The Association is focusing on mapping riparian and wetland areas, identifying losses, and restoring damaged areas. Brian explains it’s important to understand what the natural ecosystems and features are and how they’ve changed over the last 50 years. “Whether it’s been wetland loss or drainage, industrial development, clearing of native habitats that has impacted the landscape…we look at potential ways to restore these systems so they can help mitigate negative climate change impacts.”
“Committed people working together for a sustainable region, through shared initiatives and collaborative action” - Beaver Hills Biosphere
In a region bursting with diverse interests, stories, ecologies, industries and people, the Biosphere applies its collaborative and inclusive approach to identify common threads around various needs and opportunities. Together, with its regional partners, the Biosphere has developed a number of initiatives to address these needs and opportunities to build a more sustainable and resilient region. A handful of ways they are doing so include:
providing data for decision-making
supporting applied research
raising awareness of local Indigenous stories and history
identifying opportunities for nature-based tourism
Providing Data for Decision-making
The Association hosts an internal data sharing portal, which can be used by municipal planners, environmental departments, agricultural fieldmen and conservation coordinators throughout the Biosphere to inform their decisions. The portal’s databases store information about various environmental features of the Biosphere, like the location of surface water or riparian areas. For example, if a developer presents a project proposal to a municipality in the Biosphere, municipal staff can reference the available data as they determine whether or not to approve the proposal or require changes.
The Association recently completed a landsat-based inventory of all the surface water in the Biosphere. The inventory offers answers to many common questions municipalities and industry have as they consider development and other opportunities: Where are all the wetlands? Where have wetlands been negatively impacted through drainage? Where are all the surface water features? Where are the native habitat blocks and how do they connect to Elk Island National Park or Miquelon Lake Provincial Park?
The Biosphere offers the public a glimpse of some of that data through its online StoryMap that harnesses the power of maps to provide another way to view and understand the complexity of the Beaver Hills landscape and why it is so important.
Supporting Applied Research
The Association also supports the applied research of a variety of academic institutions with its primary partner being the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus. Much of the research coming from this relationship explores what drives the Biosphere’s environmental cycles. While these studies have an obvious environmental and biodiversity focus, they also incorporate the interests of the community to support long-term sustainability and resilience.
Raising Awareness of Local Indigenous Stories and History
Another significant piece of the Biosphere’s efforts that can inform decision making and opportunities in the region is the deep and lasting relationships between the landscape and local Indigenous Peoples. “We’re aware that, historically, the Beaver Hills has been very important to and has had a strong First Nations and Métis presence. We are working diligently to ensure that history is acknowledged and Indigenous perspectives are present within the work of the Biosphere” The Association is doing this in several ways.
A dedicated team member of the Association is responsible for Indigenous engagement and has been building relationships with people, communities and organizations for the last two years. “We’re working to understand the role we can play to help tell the stories and how we can assist reconnection between Indigenous people and the land.”
A series of video vignettes about the Biosphere’s early history have been commissioned by the Association, and these videos are bringing to life the relatively unknown, yet rich Indigenous history of the Beaver Hills. Explore the vignette videos about the Biosphere's history.
The Biosphere also offers an Indigenous book club that gives people the opportunity to learn more about and discuss Indigenous ways of knowing and traditional ecological knowledge. Visit the club web page to see what they are reading right now and get involved.
Identifying Opportunities for Tourism
Municipalities in the Biosphere are highly interested in generating tourism in the area, and Brian explained there’s a big movement by the Alberta Government to support tourism in the region. Currently, his team is working with regional tourism operators and provincial tourism experts to define what their role will be in growing the local tourism industry.
“We’re envisioning an all-encompassing, nature-based tourism strategy that would include sport-based tourism, Indigenous-based tourism, as well as promoting local food producers and cultural sites like the Ukrainian Village.”
The Association plans to develop tourism support programs to connect experts with vendors. He gives an example, “Someone may run a bird watching company that brings people out to the Biosphere regularly. We’d connect them with others who have similar interests and knowledge to help support their endeavours.”
Thank you again to Brian, for offering us insight into the important ecological, cultural and social work underway in the Beaver Hills Biosphere.
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