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Everyone knows the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.” People should be skeptical of anyone who claims they can rip apart an ecosystem and put it back together again. In the case of tar sands (also called oil sands) mining, the subject of “Crude Awakening” [March-April], the claim borders on tragic; 0.2 percent of Alberta’s mined tar sands have been certified by the Alberta government as reclaimed since operations began some 40 years ago. Left behind are vast ponds contaminated with toxic wastes and exposed sand landscapes held back from the river by steep, unsustainable embankments.

How can Suncor possibly call itself a “sustainable energy company”? The process of extracting bitumen and refining it into synthetic crude oil produces roughly three times the greenhouse-gas emissions of more conventional oil extraction. The very trees that can take the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere are destroyed in the process. Canada’s boreal forests are now giving up more carbon dioxide than they are storing, and tar sands energy development factors in.

When it comes to ecosystem destruction caused by mining tar sands, all the corporate public relations and government propaganda on the continent will never put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Larry Schweiger
President and CEO
National Wildlife Federation
Reston, VA

I want to express my gratitude to Audubon for including such a fantastic article about the nightmare in Alberta! Few people know about the tar sands operation, and even fewer actually understand what a calamitous effect it has already begun to have on the environment, plants and animals, water systems, etc. Politicians and the oil industry want us to believe that tar sands represent our chance at “energy independence.” But developing them is raping a huge segment of the animal kingdom and destroying one of the most important old-growth forests on the planet. We who understand the “trickle down theory” know that if these practices continue, we’re only a few generations from the total destruction of our planet. I fear for my children and grandchildren. I hope your article causes more people to pay attention!

Mike C.
Long Island, NY


We regret not having the opportunity to meet with Barry Yeoman, the author of “Crude Awakening.” The Government of Alberta has monitored the environmental impacts of oil sands since development began decades ago and, with industry, continues to reduce and mitigate them. The story does note the critical fact that the biodiversity in the Athabasca oil sands region is 94 percent intact, but it also states that oil sands development means “the destruction of Canada’s boreal forest.” This forest covers 3,100,000 square kilometers. The total area disturbed by oil sands mining to date is 600 square kilometers, or .02 percent, and we require all disturbed land to be reclaimed. Presently, 66 square kilometers has been reclaimed or is in active reclamation.

We also carefully manage impacts on the Athabasca River. Current restrictions limit withdrawals from the river to no more than three percent of the river’s annual average flow. But withdrawals are also limited by the actual water flow, constantly measured. We recognize that oil sands development could potentially increase contaminant levels in the river, which flows naturally through bitumen deposits, so we watch it closely. In more than three decades of monitoring, there has been no detectable change.

No potential impact of oil sands development would be greater than a health effect on people. The article asserts that a community physician discovered “outsized cancer rates” downstream of the oil sands development area without examining the investigations by both Alberta’s health department and the Alberta Cancer Board, which found cancer rates in the area consistent with the rest of Alberta. We are committed to working with communities downstream to involve residents in monitoring and evaluating the ecological health of their communities.

We as Canadians will not put economic development ahead of the environment; we will find a balance for both.

Rob Renner
Minister of Environment
Government of Alberta
Calgary, AB

Barry Yeoman responds: The 600 square kilometers are a fraction of the area targeted for bitumen extraction in Alberta’s tar sands region. Almost 5,000 square kilometers are leased for surface mining, and another 75,000 are leased for in situ extraction. Both methods will devastate boreal wildlife. Only 0.2 percent of the currently mined area has been certified as reclaimed. Respected scientists would disagree with Mr. Renner’s assertion that there have been no discernible impacts on the Athabasca River. My article cited a 2009 study directly linking the tar sands operations with the river’s high levels of certain carcinogens. As for human health, the Alberta Cancer Board concluded that Fort Chipewyan has a 31 percent higher-than-expected incidence of cancer, though the study was not designed to determine causality. The authors recommended further investigation.


I helped host Barry Yeoman and the NRDC on an oil sands tour last summer. I respect his perspective, but I feel the imbalanced reporting requires further comment. First, the oil sands sector produces about 38 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, significantly less than the two billion tons per year contributed by U.S. coal-based electrical generation. Second, what he describes as a tailings pond looking “more like a massive sandbox than an aquatic body” suggests that Mr. Yeoman misunderstood tailings and reclamation. This was a tailings pond that has been reclaimed. The sand is what remains after bitumen removal. Mr. Yeoman stood on the sand—it has not disappeared, nor has it been “moved elsewhere.” Suncor has a new method for managing tailings that’s expected to accelerate the speed of reclamation. Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute said, “Suncor has made an important first step in acknowledging and seeking to address this problem with a new approach” (mentioned here). Further, the figures referenced from the Boreal Songbird Initiative report used a modeling exercise for which there is no supporting data and no independent peer review. Also, Mr. Yeoman advocates a national low carbon fuel standard, which includes “cellulosic ethanol, corn-based ethanol, and biodiesel.” Increased ethanol demand in 2006 and 2007 had negative consequences, including higher food prices and forest-to-agriculture land conversions. Finally, the article also ignores oil sands development benefits: North American energy security, social and community investment, Canadian and American jobs, and more than $1 billion in aboriginal business spending since 1993.

Peter MacConnachie
Suncor Energy
Calgary, AB

Barry Yeoman responds: Mr. MacConnachie seems to have misread the paragraphs about Suncor’s efforts to reclaim a leaky tailings pond. What I wrote was that the toxic liquid waste that once filled the pond hasn’t disappeared—rather it’s been moved to a safer pit. Company officials told me several times that they had no definitive strategy for treating the relocated waste. After I did my initial research, Suncor developed a new method to treat liquid tailings, but company officials never mentioned this during numerous follow-up phone calls. The new technology also remains unproven. Suncor is still ahead of most of its competitors in waste management. But according to the Pembina Institute, seven of Alberta’s nine bitumen mines have failed to submit plans that meet the province’s new regulations for reducing tailings. The other points in Mr. MacConnachie’s letter don’t allege factual errors but rather spin the information differently. For example, by comparing the greenhouse-gas impacts of Canadian tar sands and U.S. coal, he overlooks the fact that the tar sands are the fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada. The industry has not publicly advocated regulatory changes to reduce these emissions.



Apropos of Ted Williams’s excellent article, “Picture Perfect” [Incite, March-April]: I thought you’d like to know that the board of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) voted in February to stop taking and sending out advertising from game farms. The last line of our mission statement was amended and now reads: “NANPA fosters excellence and ethical conduct in all aspects of our endeavors and especially encourages responsible photography in the wild.” Williams’s article helped NANPA members understand both sides of the issue and to understand more fully why the board made the decision it did.

NANPA has an excellent Principles of Ethical Field Practices document available on its website here. We encourage photographers to use these principles as a guide in the field.

Sharon Cohen-Powers
Past-President, NANPA
Long Beach, NY


Ted Williams’s article about phony wildlife photos reminded me of an incident a few years ago that took place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. One spring Evelyn Wood, a woman known as the “plover lady” because she watches over the piping plover nests in the Grand Marais area, was asked to show a photographer where some of the plover chicks were. He chased a chick until it was exhausted so that he could pose it. This is another incident in which the photographer displayed ignorance and no concern about the welfare of the animal.

Robert C. Short
Dowagiac, MI



I enjoyed “The Drifter,” about rufous hummingbirds, and I’d like to add another hummingbird festival to the list. On the first full weekend in August, Land Between the Lakes (LBL) National Recreation Area (in western Kentucky and Tennessee) has its Hummingbird Festival [August 6-8 at the Woodlands Nature Station], and attendees may have the opportunity to observe 150 to 200 hummingbirds in a relatively small area (go to for more information). Additionally, a hummingbird bander, Bill Hilton Jr. of Operation Rubythroat, will be on hand to “ring” hummingbirds and educate the public. The festival includes a variety of programs, demonstrations, and activities on hummingbirds and other backyard wildlife.

Bob Peak
Henderson, KY



I was thrilled to read Ted Williams’s Incite “No Pay, No Say” [January-February] about state fish and game departments. As a hunter, I was happy he told it like it is. Hunters and fishermen have paid the entire bill for our thriving wildlife refuge system and wildlife populations. He forgot a way to make more money for the cause, however: Make everyone who visits a wildlife refuge first buy a duck stamp. Call it a user fee. After all, the duck stamp—paid for by duck hunters and sportspeople—paid for the entire refuge system. Putting money to work for conservation—just think, you could visit all the refuges in America for just $15.

Bill Samuelson
Anchorage, AK



I was touched and saddened by the plight of the adolescent albatross in March-April’s One Picture. My brain screams, “What can we do to help?” However, I know that short of banning plastic in the world or sieving the ocean, there is nothing that will presently help these birds. I suppose the best thing we can do is to work to modify local challenges to a clean environment.

Joanne W. Stamm
Kutztown, PA


I’m disappointed in “Horse Ills” [Field Notes, March-April], which covered the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) wild horse roundup plan. The article seemingly takes the BLM’s position at face value, giving just one opponent only the tiniest sound bite.

While the article cites the BLM’s arguments that wild horses are simultaneously starving to death and exploding in population, and responsible for wreaking environmental havoc, it fails to mention the decades-long argument from wild horse advocates—that it is, rather, the impact of roughly 125 publicly grazed cattle for each wild horse on the public range that accounts for the destruction. Nowhere does it mention the roughly four million cattle on the western range, though other stories in the very same issue of Audubon describe cattle as the culprits behind habitat devastation (e.g., cattle-grazing scars on the Nebraska landscape, described in “March Magic”).

That wild horses are in the path of the BLM’s sweeping alternative energy plans also bypassed your radar, but it’s a predicament that will likely be shared by all wildlife in America’s remaining public wilderness. With sunshine and wind now lucrative energy commodities, and the BLM rushing energy generation and transmission projects on hundreds of millions of acres of public land, any “varmint” standing in the way of energy development is liable to be eliminated.

Elizabeth Stevens
Lawrence, KS

Editor’s note: To see how this problem is being handled to benefit sage-grouse, see “Balance of Power.”



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