Approaching a favourite pool on the upper Highwood River not far from the clearcutting blocks.

Taking a Stand for Alberta’s Highwood River

Nestled in the heart of what’s known as Kananaskis Country in southern Alberta is the Highwood River Valley. The Highwood River is the heart of the region. It winds through the mountain valley at its headwaters, through the foothills into the towns of Longview and High River

before eventually joining the Bow River. The Highwood is also home to two of Alberta’s three native trout species, the westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout, both of which are listed as Species At Risk under the Canadian Federal Species At Risk Act. 

A view of the Highwood River Valley just south of the clearcutting blocks proposed for the 23/24 winter.
A large westslope cutthroat trout caught on the Highwood River.

My father would fish this river in the 1970s, usually with a big conventional rod. He would hunt in this area as well, coming home to tell stories of fish caught or deer harvested years before I was born. Decades later, I found myself exploring the same reaches of the Highwood River, noting favourite pools and bends that held the biggest bull trout I had ever caught on the fly. Or I’d find a well-loved horse trail I’d let my son freely explore as a toddler after a day of hiking and fishing.

A bull trout, one of Alberta’s native trout species, and also a Species At Risk.

Needless to say, the Highwood River is a special place not just for me, but also for many other people who have been lucky to experience it. Unfortunately, this area is not protected under any designation. It does not fall under a provincial park, national park or public land use zone, which means it’s at risk for industry involvement. Even though Albertans are now required to pay an annual $90 fee for a “conservation pass” to access this area, that hasn’t stopped extensive clearcutting plans in the area. Spray Lake Sawmills has begun the process of clearcutting 1100 hectares of forest, 21 kms of which is right along the Highwood River and its tributaries.

My son (age 2 here) and I enjoying an autumn day on the Highwood River.
Angler Brendan Toner targets a rising westslope cutthroat trout in a Highwood River pool.

This area is a critical habitat for bull trout.  Each fall they navigate the upper reaches of the Highwood River and its tributaries to find their spawning grounds. As a species at risk, they depend on cold, clean watersheds to thrive.  With the majority of their habitat already lost, every kilometre of habitat that remains matters. Clearcut logging introduces sediment loading, destabilizes stream flows and puts this critical habitat at risk.

A westslope cutthroat trout from the Highwood River being released.

While the process started, Spray Lake Sawmills constructed a bridge over the Highwood River during the middle of summer, with record low water levels and an angling restriction in place for the public. They have ripped up the bank, driven machinery through the water, and forever changed the habitat these bull trout depend on.

When you walk through the Highwood River valley near its headwaters you are completely surrounded by the towering rocky mountains and old forest.

This is an important area for water security, wildlife, native trout, tourism and recreation. Its value is measured beyond dollars and cents to those who call it home or frequent it. It should be protected and left as it was always meant to be. The future of bull trout depends on it. The future generations of Albertans depend on it. That should speak for something. 

For more information on the clearcutting in this area and what you can do you go to or feel free to reach out to us at Take A Stand for Kananaskis @takeeastand.highwood or @thebugparade on Instagram.

Contributed By

Amber Toner

Amber Toner is a fly angler and outdoors / conservation photographer from Calgary, Alberta – Soft foregrounds and natural light drive her creativity with photography while trout sipping dry flies fuel her passion for fly fishing. Amber is also a conservationist and passionate about saving Alberta’s native trout and their east slope rocky mountain watersheds.


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