Draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan finally released

Five years after publication of its original Land Use Framework draft, the Alberta government has finally released its land use plan for southern Alberta.

The plan covers about an eighth of the province, and is home to 45 per cent of Alberta’s population and most of the province’s irrigated land. It also includes “iconic tourism destinations” — the Southern Rockies, Kananaskis and the Badlands. Given that range of land uses this plan will likely set the framework for other regions.

In releasing the plan, Stewardship Minister Diana McQueen said, “We can have it all, but not everywhere and not all the time.”

Some policies remain unchanged. All energy leases will be honoured and there is no mention of any change in future. Renewable energy development of all types is to be encouraged, despite the 14 existing and 13 planned wind farms as well as large biofuel plant and biogas facility in the region.

The economic indicators for the farm economy include fragmentation of farmland and conversion out of agriculture. The plan commits to recognizing stewardship and conservation on private lands with government and private market-based options. It will develop and assess innovative funding mechanisms to assess and evaluate ecosystem services, such as the Southeast Conservation Offset Pilot.

Grazing on intact native grasslands on public land in the “white area” of the province will continue, with maintenance of the ecosystem as the priority.

“We see some good things in the plan,” said Alan Gardner of the Southern Alberta Land Trust (SALT). “But we have concerns too. It’s a complex issue and we know there will be trade-offs, but there’s not a lot of specificity in this document.”

Urban sprawl

SALT members hoped to see measures to combat fragmentation of habitat and urban sprawl, issues they say need to be addressed. As an example, Gardner cites the Highway 2 corridor, the province’s main development area despite having some of the province’s best soils. The plan downloads responsibility for directing development on to less productive farmland. It also suggests municipalities work together to plan sustainable communities with innovative designs, secondary suites, and a range of densities.

“We only have preliminary comments because we haven’t had time to really read it all. Offsets can be a challenge too. They have advantages, but they can be a liability,” said Gardner.

Much of the plan focuses on the integrity of the headwaters and watercourses vital to this region and to southern Saskatchewan. Parks and conservation areas are to be expanded, especially along the eastern slopes. Although recreation opportunities are to be increased, the plan commits to limiting access, particularly for off-highway vehicles to certain areas.

Shannon Frank, executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council, is cautiously optimistic about the plan.

“It’s a really good first step,” she said. “It highlights healthy environments and access plans that will limit access to designated trails to protect the headwaters. We have to see how it will be implemented and enforced.”

Frank hopes to see industry forced to do more reclamation. At present, disturbances like seismic and pipeline cutlines are left to natural regrowth, but they quickly become ATV trails.

“We’ve been working with the ATV people and we want proper trails as part of a healthy environment for the future,” she says. “The government is aiming to do the same thing, get people working together, to take a risk and talk to each other.”

Forestry

Frank has concerns about the plan’s proposal to maximize timber harvest and diversify, including into biofuel. Forestry is to be allowed in conservation areas for wildfire, disease or insect control. “We’ve been up there and looked at logged areas,” Frank said. “Roads are too close to the creeks, silt fences are broken and buffers along creeks are not adequate. We can continue forestry and maintain watersheds, but practices need to improve to reach the intent of the plan.”

Lorne Fitch, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist, believes the declining populations of bull trout, cutthroat and grizzly bears indicate land use is already beyond the threshold for many species.

“A 100-metre buffer zone doesn’t have enough filtering and buffering capacity to protect those sensitive species — and they’re sending signals,” he said.

The other problem Fitch sees is mechanical erosion by off-highway vehicles and logging puts sediment into the headwaters. It moves downstream and has to removed for water treatment. The public pays the cost instead of loggers absorbing paying their costs.

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) is also cautiously optimistic, but concerned that the plan’s legislated protection for Oldman headwaters is mainly above 7,000 feet. “We need to protect the valley bottoms,” said AWA spokesperson Brittany Verbeek. “Just protecting headwaters is not adequate. We see very little protection for grasslands and the plan falls short in dealing with wetlands.”

Verbeek said there should be no logging or oil and gas activity in wildlands, and off-highway vehicles should not be allowed in riparian areas. “We also see an issue with mines too close to headwaters,” she said.

For public meeting dates and locations visit www.landuse.alberta.ca.

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