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This First Nation in Alberta is fighting climate change with rows and rows of trees

A First Nation in southern Alberta is bringing back an old innovation, with the hopes it’ll help them cope with climate change on the Prairies.

Siksika Nation will see shelterbelts planted throughout the community, which are rows of trees planted on the perimeter of properties.

Shelterbelts serve many purposes, including being a natural wind barrier, and capturing moisture in the soil. 

The community is teaming up with Project Forest, an Edmonton-based non-profit organization whose mission is to rewild parts of Alberta. They receive funding from various corporations. 

Eldon Weasel Child, a Blackfoot knowledge keeper, says he has seen a lot of changes in his community over the years, and is hopeful that shelterbelts can help revitalize the environment in Siksika. 

“There’s not as much snow, the river flows differently,” said Weasel Child, standing in the Siksika flats, where the first trees will be planted later this month. 

“Elders have talked about the difference in how the river flows because it doesn’t go as high as it normally did, meaning there’s less melt in the mountains.” 

Shelterbelts can be seen on farms across the Prairies. One big element the shelterbelts will help Siksika Nation cope with is the wind. 

Aerial photograph of a section of Siksika Nation, in southern Alberta.
An aerial shot of a section of Siksika Nation where 180,000 seedlings will be planted next spring, as part of a community-wide shelterbelt program. (David Bajer/CBC)

“We’re kind of in a valley, so a lot of the trees that you see here are just mostly along the river bank,” said Dale Springchief, special lands project coordinator for Siksika Nation land management. 

“We’re living in a valley [where] you can get those extreme winds.” 

Mike Toffan, executive director of Project Forest, says the shelterbelts are needed becauses there are noticeable lack of trees in Siksika Nation. 

“When you leave Calgary and you drive towards Siksika, there’s a lot of trees and then as soon as you get within the boundaries of the nation there isn’t much,” said Toffan. 

“Shelterbelts are really important in that part of the province … that has to do with the wind and the amount of precipitation that we get.”

At the end of October, Project Forest will hold a ceremony in Siksika and plant 180 seedlings. By spring of next year, 180,000 seedlings will be planted. 

Over the next five years, Toffan says one million trees will be planted in Siksika. 

Trees help fight drought 

For years now, members of the Siksika Nation say their lands are drier than they’ve ever been, as climate change continues to affect the supply of water in the Prairies, as the summers become hotter and the winters become shorter. 

“It’s the drier weather that we’re seeing too in the summer and the spring. The early melt off, the less rain it’s impacting our grounds,” said Springchief. “When we’re reintroducing a lot of the traditional plants that used to be here, it’s going to help that soil.” 

About 40 kilometres of shelterbelts are set to be planted in the community next spring, and over the next five years up to an additional 450 kilometres of shelterbelts will be planted. 

But figuring out what trees will take root in the otherwise dry conditions of the Prairies is a bit of a guessing game for Project Forest. 

“Siksika has tried to grow trees before and sometimes not super successfully because it’s a very challenging climate, so we’re going to be using a mix of natural species and … some hybridized plants,” said Toffan, who says more than 14 species will be planted in the first year. 

“We’re going to use [trees] like caragana and okanese poplar, which can grow really well in low moisture, high temperature situations to create a better microsite for plants like Colorado blue spruce, saskatoon [berries], raspberries and a variety of other plants.”

Dale Spring Chief, special lands project coordinator for Siksika Nation.
Dale Springchief, special lands project coordinator for Siksika Nation land management, who has been working on the community’s shelterbelt project. (David Bajer/CBC)

Once Project Forest figures out which trees will flourish in the area, the hope is the shelterbelts will help capture moisture in the soil. 

“We need that soil to start to crop off in the spring, and where did you get the spring moisture before the summer rains come is usually with the melting snow,” said Colin Larocque, professor at the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan. 

He says the shelterbelts will trap the snow, which in a windy valley like Siksika Nation, would normally blow across a frozen field. 

By next summer, edible and medicinal plants will be included in the shelterbelts, as a way of boosting food security, and deepening a connection to culture for those who use these plants for ceremonial purposes. 

Springchief says some plants that once grew in the community no longer do and big driver of this change was the 2013 flood of the Bow River. 

“Due to natural erosion after the 2013 flood, there were some studies done on some of the floodplains and some of the erosion and soil sampling done to date … there’s a lot of change down by the river bed,” said Springchief. 

“A lot of the berries that we normally see specifically down by the river, are no longer there.” 

Mike Toffan from Project Forest holding a Manitoba maple seedling in a greenhouse at Tree Time, outside of Beaumont.
Mike Toffan, executive director of Project Forest, holding a Manitoba maple seedling, one of the tree species that will be planted in Siksika Nation next spring. (David Bajer)

For the elders of Siksika, the return of certain plants means the return to a more traditional way of life. 

“There are plants that used to grow here for medicinal use that are no longer here, we have to go out to get them, there was a time where everything we needed was here,” said Weasel Child. 

National shelterbelt program 

In 1901, the federal government launched the prairie shelterbelt program, largely to entice farmers to move to the Prairies, an area with less than ideal dry farming conditions. 

The national program disbanded in 2013, but in 112 years in operation it gave more than a billion seedlings to farmers in Western provinces. 

“After the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and during the 40s, [the federal government] started really expanding this program to stop that loss of soil and retention of moisture in the landscape,” said Larocque. 

The Dust Bowl  saw extreme winds and drought in th1930s, which was partly exacerbated by farmers removing essential prairie grasses that helped trap soil in the naturally dry prairie landscape.

Elder in training Eldon Weasel Child, Siksika Nation, Alberta. Shot September 26/23.
Eldon Weasel Child, Siksika Nation, is the shelterbelt program’s knowledge keeper. He has been talking to elders of the community to learn what plants should be included in the shelterbelts. (David Bajer/CBC)

Larocque says that First Nations were excluded from the national program, since reserve land is technically owned by the federal government. 

“When you get into that … true ownership on First Nations lands, it wasn’t quite the same, so because they didn’t own [their land] the same way, [they] couldn’t say, ‘this is my township and range and my address, please send the trees to this area.'” 

Shelterbelts on farmlands near Beaumont, Alberta, near Tree Time greenhouse.
Aerial shot of farmlands near Beaumont, where shelterbelts can be seen. Next spring, Project Forest will plant trees in Siksika Nation in southern Alberta, that in years will look like this. (David Bajer/CBC)

Despite being excluded from the national shelterbelt program, Weasel Child says elders told him Siksika Nation took advantage of a different kind of natural shelterbelt — the Rocky mountains. 

He says when the leaves changed colours in fall, that was the sign for the Blackfoot people to relocate to the mountains. 

“The Blackfoot being adaptable as other First Nations as well, we used to winter in the mountain, and … it was literally a shelterbelt,” said Weasel Child. 

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.

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