The availability of biomass for fuel has long been a factor dictating migration and settlement in present-day Alberta. In an environment where the winter climate could often be harsh and unforgiving, proximity to natural sources of fuel was essential to survival. The relative absence of wood on the Prairie landscape thus played a significant role shaping the patterns of life in the region from the period of earliest settlement through to the twentieth century.
The rhythms of life for Plains First Nations peoples were dictated by a wide range of environmental and cultural factors. Most famous of these was the migration of the bison herds—hunting and subsistence patterns of First Nations people mirrored the movement of the bison throughout most of the year. The choice of where to settle for the winter, however, was largely influenced by the availability of wood for fuel. During the spring and summer, indigenous peoples used a number of different biofuels, including wood, grass, animal bones and bison dung (known as “bison chips”). Of these, only wood was capable of generating sufficient heat during the harsh winter months, so First Nations people typically set up their winter camps in sheltered river valleys and other wooded areas. The availability of wood was thus the main factor dictating settlement patterns in the winter.
The need to draw upon biomass for energy was also important during the fur trade era. Proximity to fuel was not the determining factor that dictated where a trading post would be established; transportation routes and relations with
indigenous trading partners were certainly more crucial. However, fur trade journals yield evidence of the importance of securing fuel on a daily basis, particularly during the winter months. A typical entry from the journal kept at Buckingham House (dated October 17, 1798)—“people cutting firewood”—points at once to the importance of securing fuel for the operation of the post and the drudgery of day-to-day labour at a fur trade post.
Proximity to biomass for fuel also shaped settlement patterns of European immigrants to Alberta in the early twentieth century. Promoters of settlement in the Prairie West typically emphasized the openness of the plains landscape, in stark contrast to the tangled, tree-filled lands of Ontario. This image appealed greatly to Anglo-Canadians and Americans—seeking to maximize the profitability of their 160-acre grants, settlers usually flocked to homesteads on the open plains where crops could be planted without having to clear and uproot trees. It was something of a surprise to Canadian officials, then, when European immigrants (particularly Ukrainians, but other groups as well) chose homesteads in the wooded areas, where the tree were seen as an asset rather than a liability. Their rationale for choosing wooded land was the availability of wood for construction, as well as for fuel. Rather than seeking to maximize profitability, these immigrants prioritized sustainability, choosing land that yielded a free source of fuel for years to come.