The Great Sand Hills :
a fourteen thousand year old crisis

FTLComm - Sceptre - Saturday, June 26, 2004

At the end of the last ice age not all of Saskatchewan had been covered as the Cypress Hills south of Maple Creek were not covered, but the rest of the province was under a massive glacial cover. As the temperatures warmed the ice began to retreat to the north with rivers forming and flowing on and under the ice. It appears as though for some time the bottom end of the ice cover was somewhere along what is now the TransCanada highway and the melting ice water carried with it sand, gravel and loam which was deposited in a huge terminal moraine indicated by the sand colour on this map.

A glacial moraine produces a unique terrain soil and debris is dumped on the surface producing kettle lakes and ponds, random hills and valleys occur but there is no drainage system, no streams and rivers so that rain and snow simple fall on the area and settle into the groundwater. Areas like this will have highly mineralised water deposits since dissolvable salts will leach from the soil and have not place to go but build up in the water table. The material in this huge moraine area consisted of a mixture of things as we saw clays, sand and in some areas north of Tompkins, fields strewn with rocks and boulders

A controversy has grown up around this part of the province as conservationists and some environmentalists are alarmed at the amount of oil field activity in the area. This month the province has decided to issue further permits for increased gas field development and
many have warned that this will endanger the already fragile environment. When I set to work to post Edwin Wallace's concerns about this area I discovered few pictures of the area online and borrowed a picture from the St. Angela's Academy web site from nearby Prelate. (While we were at the dune site a class from the Academy arrived to explore the dunes.) So on Wednesday afternoon we drove from Swift Current out to Tompkins (west of Gull Lake) then went ten kilometres west on highway one and turned north into the vast area of range land and rolling drumlin hills that form the Great Sand Hills

The very first thing we discovered was that the Great Sand Hills, though from a road map appear to be devoid of roads and people are anything but desolate. The place is teaming with life, huge cattle spreads, we barely made a mile without having to stop to photograph yet another unusual bird. raptors, songbirds, water fowl and pronghorn antelope, though it is geographically classed as a desert because of its low amount of rainfall it is definitely not deserted. The soil is held in place by a fragile cover of prairie grasses and an assortment of other shrubs. Their root system is the net that covers the dunes which are everywhere and prevents the place from looking like Saudi Arabia.

The slide show tour (right, requires a recent version of
QuickTime to be seen) is a review of the pictures we captured as we made our way north then west across the Sand Hills to Fox Valley mid way between Maple Creek and Leader. Though we kept our speed down we punctured a tire on a bullet shaped stone and limped into Fox Valley on the donut which itself was low in pressure. From Fox Valley we went north to Liebenthal, three quarters the way from Maple Creek to Leader and we headed east fifteen kilometres then followed a road made for folks like us to take us to the active dunes.

The dunes are well beyond descriptive words like huge and they are alive shifting with the wind so that on the lea side they are almost an illusion as you can sink you hand into the almost weightless material past your wrist without resistance while on the top and the windward side moisture from the very light rain produced a crust that easily supported my weight. On the windward side it was clear to see how devastating their movement is upon life as they swallow plants exposing their roots in tangles. We followed a trail from the parking lot toward the dunes and the trail is much deeper than the surrounding surface then we took a cow path up a hillside to overlook the dunes and it too was recessed. Any place where the root structure is exposed the wind digs out the material and sand piles up on the edges. The road into the area appears to be carved out of the surrounding landscape but it is just the opposite as the edge of the road becomes a drift collection and the sand on the road way is gradually eroded.

The most dramatic scene was atop the hill looking toward the dunes from which I produced the
QuickTime VR panorama seen at the bottom of this page. The very crest of the hill is in fact a crater. The surface area at some time had been broken open and the wind swirled away a substantial hole about the size of a house, which indeed will continue to grow. Clearly, every footstep can produce a potential erosion area and in the slide show you will see some images of the sparse growth network on the ground which is holding the soil in place.

Petroleum exploration and development has been a part of this part of Saskatchewan for decades and we saw evidence of pipeline after pipeline from well head to compression batteries. We only saw one flare, it was at a newly developed site where work was in progress. The production companies now compress all of the material that might have been flared in the past and this product is transported for processing. What is most important to understand is that the gas field in production between Gull Lake and Sceptre is a sweet gas field. What this means is that the natural gas in this field does not contain the deadly hydrogen sulfide (sour gas, the smell of rotten eggs). This explains the absence of flares and added safety in that a well head leak will not dump toxic poisonous gas into the atmosphere.

I could see nothing that posed a threat to the area from addition oil and gas development. The primary threat to the ecology is the vast herds of cattle on the range and as long as there is rain and the growth on the surface is supported the cattle will not produce excessive erosion. I interviewed several folks along the way, as I said the place is far from empty.

There are more cattle on the ranches than usual because of the closure of the US border to Canadian cattle on the hoof. Most farmers retained the older cows that would have been sold last summer and they just can not hang on to them and the ones that are due to be marketed this year. One rancher explained that seven year old cattle were selling at Maple Creek last week for $120 a cow. That certainly makes one wonder what the heck is going on with a cow selling for what adds up to 16¢ a pound with supermarket prices of all beef products well over a dollar. The ranchers are careful with the environment and many, because of the BSE crisis are working part time in the gas and oil industry. The ones I talked to felt that continued development of the gas field is vital to Saskatchewan's interest and there was no threat to the environment.

The old days of the wild wreck and ruin methods of drilling and production are long gone. The production companies are painfully aware of the need to be environmentally friendly if they want politicians and the public to permit their industry to develop. They are very conscious of the need to restore the surface after development and take care to maintain their sites with grounds people who seed grass and keep the weeds in check.

It was in Fox Valley that the impact of the gas field was to be noticed. We had to have our tire repaired and the only other customers at the tire shop were oil field workers. Fox Valley was once a very busy community but like all Saskatchewan rural villages it has suffered from the depopulation of rural areas and the only food store in the town is a convenience store, albeit a very well stocked convenience store. A shopper told me that everything she needed was available at the store with the exception of fresh meat, but as we were talking four or five gas field pick up trucks rolled up to the store and their drivers hopped out to get necessities. The economy of Fox Valley and most likely all of the towns surrounding the Great Sand Hills depends upon the petroleum development and production.

With our own need for fuel and the value of production going to provincial and federal government the Great Sand Hills is one of Saskatchewan's most valued assets. There is no doubt that conservation and careful planning will be needed to maintain the ecology but there is no reason that cattle, livestock and petroleum can all peacefully coexist.

However, it might be a good idea, if conservationists are truly concerned about the plants and animals, the dunes and the fragile area on the top west corner of the Sand Hills, that they should set the wheels in motion to produce a park to preserve some of this natural habitat without future development.


Timothy W. Shire

Music credit: Harvey Reid playing Minuet in G


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Editor : Timothy W. Shire
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