NANTON, Alta. — High in southern Alberta’s Porcupine Hills, where west winds wrestle the golden leaves of water birch and tickle the limber pines, water trickles from hidden springs into troughs at the Timber Ridge Conservation Site.
That’s where the bears bathe.
Glen and Kelly Hall didn’t set out to erect bear bathtubs when they developed off-site watering troughs on their ranch. Their goal was to protect the landscape from hoof damage and erosion while also providing their 150 cow-calf pairs with clean, fresh water.
The fact that bears also like to play and drink from the troughs, proven by motion-activated trail cameras, is evidence that their work is keeping the watershed healthy.
“We have a ranching operation right smack in the middle of a pretty important watershed,” Kelly said during a Sept. 18 tour of the 800-acre site.
“Our cows are our tools in order to look after the grass, which looks after the land, which looks after the watershed.”
Water from these hills eventually flows into Nanton Creek, Oxley Creek, Willow Creek and Mosquito Creek, and beyond them to more downstream users.
The Halls recently hosted a tour of Timber Ridge organized by the Oldman Watershed Council (OWC) to celebrate their various collaborations with the OWC, Cows and Fish, Ducks Unlimited, neighbours and the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA).
“Today we want to show them what we’ve done because lots of those people have never been here to see this place,” said Kelly.
The Halls have a co-tenancy agreement with the ACA, the first one ever established between that organization and private landholders. They own 68 percent of the site and the ACA owns the balance.
The arrangement has fostered complete inventories of the flora and fauna found in the region and fostered other projects.
The ACA is represented on the OWC’s watershed legacy program, as are many other groups and organizations. The program provides financial and technical support for projects that protect the basin.
Brad Taylor, ACA senior biologist, said the collaboration with the Halls has been “a phenomenal opportunity.”
“We have shared title on all five quarters, between ACA and Glen and Kelly, and we have a management plan in place and a co-tenancy agreement,” Taylor said.
“(It) outlines our roles and responsibilities and where we can both contribute to the whole thing.”
Hunting is now allowed on the property, by permission, but virtually nothing else has changed in terms of management.
Land conservation is nothing new to the Halls. They won the Alberta Beef Producers environmental stewardship award in 2008.
Through that experience, they met and contacted Sheldon Atwood of Carrus Land Systems, an American company with experience in managing large properties.
“We are in the process of partnering with Glen and Kelly and some other producers and businesspeople here in Canada to do a joint venture that we call Western Ranchlands Corp. so that we can expand the footprint of projects like this,” said Atwood.
“It’s a way of managing land and making it pay for itself in a sustainable way over time. We actively manage property and we assist landowners in conservation stewardship, all in the production, wildlife, profitable business side of things. We don’t operate with donations or take handouts.”
Atwood said there are ways to attract capital that grows with the land and organize it so people can enter and exit as their situations require.
Land in this part of Alberta is in great demand for acreage and residential development. In many cases, the land is more valuable than anything that can be raised on it.
Atwood said the land has to be treated as a separate asset.
“Livestock enterprises in this area now don’t generate enough income to purchase the land that they rely on, but the land asset itself is a separate business than the operating enterprises in livestock or recreation or other things that rely on that land,” he said.
“We need to view them as two separate things and manage the land sustainably and profitably through good business practices that support the long-term health of the land because that supports our business. It also adds value to the asset, to the real estate value of this system.”
Though she and Glen embrace Atwood’s philosophy, Kelly also deems the Timber Ridge site as a piece of heaven in the middle of God’s country.
The couple has followed development of a baby moose through views from various trail cameras, watched elk and deer graze, successfully discouraged seismic exploration and hosted visitors who have never experienced such untouched, natural surroundings.
They plan to conserve the site, but they don’t plan to keep it to themselves.
“Ultimately, one day, we want yellow school buses at the gates and we want kids here in numbers and we want them to learn where their water is, where the food is created,” said Kelly.
“We want them to learn about the trees and the grass because we have a lot of native species on this land that haven’t been interfered with.”
The Halls already have relationships with the universities of Leth-bridge, Calgary and Alberta, Agriculture Canada’s research centre in Lethbridge, other scientists, artists, musicians and videographers.
As one example, students from Lethbridge College planted limber pine seedlings on the property in late September in a test to see how the struggling species can survive.
“Those yellow school buses are not far away,” Kelly said.
“We’re getting closer and closer.”
Atwood summarizes land and watershed conservation like this: “More forage, more trees, more wildlife, more bugs, more micro-organisms in the soil, more fish in the streams downstream, better quality water. Better world.”