Elke Blodgett reminds me of the saying “No prophet is acceptable in his (or her) own country.” She has been likened (albeit jokingly) to a mosquito, a nuisance, an irritant, repeatedly stinging the flesh of local authorities when they don’t live up to their environmental responsibilities. However, and this a probably a testament to how much she has been able to achieve in raising the environmental awareness of the authorities and the community, she is now beginning to be recognized as something of a beneficial insect!
Elke has been a passionate and persistent citizen environmental advocate in the St Albert area for almost 20 years, focusing particularly on issues to do with Big Lake and the Sturgeon River.
Born in Germany just before World War II, Elke lived in various European countries and the U.S. before settling in St Albert in 1966. In caring for the welfare of aquatic and other environments Elke has followed in her father ‘s footsteps. (Her father, an environmental water engineer, was involved in bringing back fish to many polluted rivers of Europe such as the Rhine, and also invented a way, still in use, to reduce air pollution from coal-burning power plants.) Her childhood experience also honed her intimacy with nature. Experiencing poverty like many German families during and after the War, her family supplemented their diet with wild-harvested foods. To this day, Elke still seeks out wild foods, berries, mushrooms and greens, and teaches others to do the same. And she particularly enjoys passing this information on to the younger generation.
But Elke’s perspective on the environment is not utilitarian. Elke is also an artist, a sculptor, and brings artistic sensibilities to her appreciation of the natural world. Yet likely it is her well-developed sense of moral obligation to protect the environment and its living inhabitants that has kept Elke going through years of contentious, frustrating and sometimes disappointing environmental advocacy. As fellow conservationist Barbara Collier puts it, “the fact that most levels of government fail to do what is right [regarding the environment] is the impetus that drives Elke on in her battle to respect and save nature.”
Elke doesn’t go in for the big “Save the Whale” challenges – rather she concentrates on local issues that would probably escape the attention of many of us, where she feels she can really make a difference. She patiently monitors breaches of environmental rules and regulations – which of course demands a good knowledge of such rules, much poring over paperwork – by observation and photography, and reports them, often being prepared to take further action if the authorities fail to do so. Here are some examples of her work:
- She initiated legal action over a leachate spill from the former Riel sewage lagoons into the Sturgeon River. Her private prosecution was taken over by the Federal Government.
- She was instrumental in getting action on a major oil and gas spill into the Sturgeon. This resulted in the formation of the STAMP working group, of which Elke was a member and which involved industry and environmentalists cooperating to prevent such spills in the future.
- She has reported and got action on several instances of river pollution from discharges of road runoff and illegal contamination by salt, gravel, shale and mud.
- She has reported on a Sturgeon River fish kills.
However, Elke is not just concerned about aquatic pollution. She has long been an advocate of relocating the power lines that cross the Sturgeon near the mouth of Big Lake, having documented the bird kills resulting from these badly located lines. (Big Lake is a major staging lake for waterfowl, and the provincial government has recently created a provincial park around it.) Elke is also a guardian of local forests and has frequently reported vandalism and illegal logging in the well-known White Spruce Forest on the north shore of the lake. Thanks in large part to Elke and other dedicated environmentalists, this same 170-year old forest has just now been acquired by the City of St Albert as a Historic Resource and will be protected from development.
For many years Elke has called for a by-law for St. Albert that would promote the health of all trees, public and private, native and cultivated. She also advocates against the non-essential use of pesticides.
One of Elke’s bigger campaigns was her opposition to the Western Bypass Road that links St Albert to Edmonton, but crosses very sensitive natural areas adjacent to the mouth of Big Lake. In 1996-1997 she organized a 10,000-plus signature petition against the road alignment. This put the brakes on the project for a while by requiring an extensive environmental impact assessment. However, municipal politicians were determined to have their way and it was a short-lived victory. The road alignment was moved only a short distance further east. Elke also lost her fight against infill development on the Big Lake floodplain by Genstar –not surprisingly, I suppose, in a province that routinely tramples the environment in its rush to promote exploitation and development.
More information on several of these issues can be found on Elke’s website (elkeblodgett.net), which she maintains as an excellent educational resource.
Elke is of course pleased that the Lois Hole-Big Lake Provincial Park has been created by the Province, but she anticipates some challenges with environmental protection of the park, given its proximity to a large metropolitan area. You can bet she’ll continue with her watchdog duties, making sure its zones and regulations and permitted uses are being complied with, and making suggestions for its welfare.
As you might guess, Elke is not afraid to speak up in public. She has made numerous presentations and submissions to St Albert City Council, Edmonton City Councillors, the Provincial and Federal Governments, developers and committees. Advocacy doesn’t usually come without opposition, and Elke has often not won popularity contests (the mosquito effect again!), but, recently, Elke has begun to obtain the recognition from the local community that she deserves.
The City of St Albert has named a naturalized area adjacent to the Sturgeon River that serves as a migratory bird nesting and feeding area “Elke’s Peninsula.” And on March 5 this year she was given a United Nations International Women’s Day Award for her environmental activities by the St Albert Bahai. Perhaps the recognition that she appreciated the most, however, came from schoolchildren: in June 1998 she was named Environmental Hero by Grade 5-ers from Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in St. Albert. In that same month and year she was a finalist in the Alberta Foundation for Environmental Excellence individual commitment category, i.e., a finalist for the Emerald Awards.
Elke isn’t going to rest on her laurels. Meanwhile her achievements and inspiration as an environmental leader to date should be recognized beyond municipal borders. Congratulations, Elke!