It certainly wasn’t the first time Dorothy Edge had stepped into the saddle of a sure-footed horse to ride the range in the autumn-tinged foothills of southern Alberta.
But it was the first time she’d done that with several dozen other ladies from various walks of life, including Laureen Harper.
Dorothy and neighbour Jo Hutchinson had journeyed to the Rio Alto part of the famed OH Ranch near Longview, to take part in The Gathering. Billed as a gathering of “Alberta’s women of influence in support of conservation,” it was an invitation-only event put on by Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC).
The day brought perfect mid-September weather, making the snow of the week before a distant memory. With horses provided by Anchor D Guiding and Outfitting of Black Diamond, some of the ladies went for a leisurely guided ride through the rolling pastures of the OH, while others hiked the foothills. The women came from diverse backgrounds, but the common link was a love of the land and support for the NCC’s goals of protecting natural habitats and wild spaces.
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Both Edge and Hutchinson have witnessed the picturesque and productive ranchlands surrounding them in the Cochrane region turn into acreages, townhouses and urban sprawl.
“It does a heart good to get out here,” Edge said as she took in a view notably absent of cars, cement, and buildings.
That sentiment was echoed by all visiting the ranch, which was part of the centennial gift of Bill and Sharon Siebens to the Calgary Stampede Foundation. Nature Conservancy Canada is a partner, holding conservation easements on the ranch to ensure it never becomes a development project.
“This has been an authentic working ranch for 125 years, and we want to maintain that,” said Toni Dixon, a Stampede board member. “We did a lot of research about what the land would support, and have 200 head of bred cows out here now.”
The OH also fits in well with the Stampede’s desire to connect urban and rural communities. Grade 5 and 6 students from Calgary and nearby rural areas have already visited the ranch under a pilot education pro-ject.
Lunch at the cookhouse after the morning adventure was followed by speeches on NCC’s work across the country. Harper, who looked very much at home in the saddle, talked about growing up about 10 miles from the OH ranch. She outlined her own strong connection with the land.
“The land we live in is important to our identity as Canadians,” said Harper, wife of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “Thanks to the Nature Conservancy of Canada for your work to ensure pieces of Canada are preserved for all generations.”
Alberta regional board chair Susan Church talked about the various threats to grasslands, and the need to protect them with sustainable ranching.
“We can’t conserve grasslands without cattle or bison being managed properly,” said Church, a founder and former longtime manager of Alberta Farm Animal Care. “In order to have good long-term, long-lasting, well-conserved lands, we need animals. We need working landscapes.”
Church acknowledged there has been a wariness between landowners and conservation groups, but said it can often be traced to using different language for what really are similar goals.
“It’s about treating the livestock managers and owners of the land as people who know that grass, and know how to use it as true stewards of the land,” she said. “We’ve really turned that corner in our organization.”
Church has brought a working agricultural perspective to her role on the NCC, and helped ensure this second edition of The Gathering was held.
“I felt that a lot of women have a lot of influence on how their families or their husbands or their corporations donate,” said Church. “So I felt we needed to do a better job in reaching out to the women who are making those decisions.”
The organization fills a gap, said NCC associate regional vice-president Larry Simpson, a tour guide for Jo Hutchinson and several others for the morning.
“We’re trying to find the intersection point between the interests of people who have the resources to make a difference, and want to… and those who have land they’d like to see conserved,” he said.
He didn’t have to convince Hutchinson, who with her late husband Jon, were the first Canadians to put a conservation easement on their ranch, located northeast of Cochrane.
“Back then, we were accused of tax evasion for doing it,” said Hutchinson.
It took a long legal battle and a major shift in attitude before their easement could be finalized.
“Development would’ve killed that area,” she said. “At least we preserved the big coulee. I couldn’t bear the thought of it being cemented over. We thought that, for us, the Nature Conservancy was the group to work with. It’s gratifying to see how it’s grown.
“I agree with the Indian philosophy that we don’t own the land, we only borrow it, and it just hurts to see it cemented over. My theme song is, ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’”
Dorothy Edge agreed with her neighbour.
“I’m fortunate to still see cows on both sides of the road when I leave home because it’s McDougall land, and it’s still a working ranch.”