Australian-designed initiative takes root in central Alberta

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The community around Rocky Mountain House believes it may have found a way to build better co-operation among the many players who deal with the broad land management challenges that face their county.

They’ve started a new organization called Clear Water Landcare. It’s a grassroots effort modelled after a highly successful rural community stewardship program that began in Australia and now spans that entire nation.

By any esthetic standards the country around Rocky Mountain House is spectacular and that is a major reason for the land pressure in Clearwater County. A backdrop of the Rocky Mountains bridges productive agricultural land with forest lands, a rapidly growing acreage “rural lifestyle” community with traditional ranching and farming. The extensive watersheds include world-class fisheries and heavy recreational use. Oil and gas exploration and forest industry activity is extensive.

That pressure was one of the reasons that this effort got started, recalls Gary Lewis, Landcare co-ordinator and one of the drivers behind the establishment of the new effort.

“We started out as Rocky Riparian Group with a focus on riparian areas to deal with water quality issues that some blamed on agriculture. There was a lot of skepticism and difficulty getting people to participate. That was compounded by some aggressive disagreements.”

When local county leader Kim Nielsen went to Australia, he saw a rural Landcare program that had been running for 15 years or more. It was government recognized, community driven with a real grassroots focus. There are several thousand Landcare groups in that country ranging from groups of a few people who want to plant a few trees to larger units who want to get involved in bigger watershed issues.

Nielsen thought the concept had merit in his area of Alberta. One thing led to another and by 2010 the Clear Water Landcare group had been established bringing together farmers and ranchers, acreage owners and other interests such as oil and gas and forestry. In 2011, Geoff McFarlane, one of the original founders of the Australian Landcare effort was invited to come to Canada and speak. This visit was well received and coincided with Clear Water Landcare first AGM in June of 2011.

Simple messaging

The Clear Water Landcare vision is simple and direct: “A community enjoying and actively supporting sustainable water and land use practices.” The name, says Lewis, was chosen for its simplicity.

“We wanted to stay away from a lot of the things that we thought had held back similar efforts. We felt that sometimes organizations complicate their mission simply by the name they choose… We also didn’t want anything that implied activism.

“We liked the name Landcare because it resonates. Clear Water is very simple to explain and understand and two words separate us from the official county name. Landcare is simple to understand. We care for the land and if we care for the land we take care of a host of our concerns, including water quality and quantity issues.

EFP fits county’s tool box

Lewis also emphasizes that Landcare is intended to build on rather than replace existing tools such as the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP). In fact Lewis is an EFP technician and has been involved in running past EFP workshops.

“I think that the EFP is a tremendous tool with real potential for awareness and action that fit the practice of land care.

The challenge for so many of us involved in stewardship is time and resources,” says Lewis. “There is a real time challenge on the delivery side. And on the farm side, so many young people have very busy lives. A young farmer may have land to care for, 100 head of cattle and a full-time job off the farm.”

There are clear signs that the Landcare effort is being watched by other counties and groups in Alberta searching for their own locally driven answers. Lewis is adamant that his group has no aspirations to be the umbrella group for the province. However, they will gladly share experiences with anyone trying to start something similar elsewhere.

And out in the original watershed that started it all, where ranchers were skeptical and not so willing to get engaged? Now one of those ranchers sits on the local watershed management board. Just the kind of progress Lewis and cohorts had hoped for.

More information on EFPs in Alberta at www.albertaefp.com.

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