AF CONTRIBUTOR |CALGARY
Farm groups have reacted cautiously to the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) recommendations released March 25, but even that is in stark contrast to the furor following initial details of land-use legislation last fall.
Colin Jeffares, an Alberta Agriculture assistant deputy minister and chairman of the Regional Advisory Committee (RAC) that drafted the land-use recommendations, said, “If I was a landowner in southern Alberta, I would feel that the RAC had gotten it right.”
Farm groups aren’t quite so positive, at least not yet. “I think a lot of it is in the right direction,” said Phil Rowland, president of the Western Stock Growers Association (WSGA), who said he knows and respects some members of the RAC. “I know that they would have put their heart and soul into it. From that perspective, they probably got something right. But, what (the plan) morphs into and then what actually rolls out, well, the jury is still out.”
The SSRP is the second of seven regional plans that Alberta Sustainable Resource Development is developing to shape the long-term outlook of land use across the
“TheRACwasadamantin protectingprivatelandowners’ rights.Youwillseeinthe reportseveralinstances wherethatisclearly,clearly articulated.”
province. The plans strive to balance social, environmental and economic priorities in order to best address Alberta’s complex future land-use needs.
Earlier recommendations in the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan released in September 2010 were widely regarded as not adequately prioritizing agriculture. Many producers suggested that this was due in part to the fact that there was little agricultural representation on the Lower Athabasca RAC. Though agricultural land is limited in the Lower Athabasca region, many producers were concerned that the first regional plan might set a precedent for the remaining six plans.
More on South Saskatchewan RAC
Greg Bowie, chairman of the Alberta Beef Producers’ (ABP) Land Use Framework Committee, said he is pleased that the South Saskatchewan’s RAC included a significant agricultural voice.
“If that hadn’t happened, it would have been totally ridiculous given that the majority of land (in the South Saskatchewan region) is agricultural land.”
The SSRP recommendations contain several on agriculture, especially related to private land ownership. The government recently introduced Bill 10, which amends to Bill 36, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. That followed landowners’ fury over what was perceived as a removal of their rights in the original bill. Bowie says that while he’s happy with many of the amendments, “it’s the regional plan that really has the teeth. The bills just allow the plans to be enacted. The details within the plans are of primary importance.”
The SSRP is more clear on private ownership rights than its Lower Athabasca predecessor. Strategic Land-Use Principle No. 2 reads: “Respecting private land ownership: The Government of Alberta must be guided by the principle of respecting private property rights. To acknowledge this, regional planning identifies common outcomes for private and public lands and offers implementation tools for both.”
Jeffares said the RAC was adamant in protecting private landowners’ rights.
“You will see in the report several instances where that is clearly, clearly articulated. The RAC felt strongly that this needed to be a founding principle.”
The SSRP recommends that new tools to compensate landowners for supporting environmental goals, including economic and market-based incentives, conservation easements and transferable development credits. The RAC recommended that existing private use such as grazing on land designated for conservation must be allowed to continue. Rowland says that the WSGA remains concerned about what they perceive as regulatory taking in Bill 10 and that, therefore, will define the SSRP.
The amendments made to Bill 10 “did address some of our issues as far as rights go on deeded or titled land,” said Rowland. “But the problem with this land-use framework is regulation which affects statutory rights (such as) irrigation licences, feedlot permits, water licences and permits, forestry rights, etc. Every time you make a regulation or some sort of edict on what can and can’t happen on a piece of property, it affects the value of your statutory rights.”
Bowie agrees that Bill 10 only “partially addresses” producer concerns to Bill 36. “The government is certainly making an effort to try to reduce the amount of uncertainty there is in the countryside over Bill 36.” However, he adds, “so much of this depends on how you interpret the bills. We are looking at getting another legal opinion. Unfortunately, you talk to five lawyers and get five different interpretations.”
In particular, the ABP remains concerned about the power given to the cabinet in both Bill 36 and 10. “Cabinet still has overarching approval and we would like it broader than that. Cabinet is too small a group to have final say,” Bowie said.
Rowland said that regardless of whether the SSRP recommendations are good for farmers, concerns remain.
“I don’t know how anyone can be pleased with a process that is behind closed doors until it rolls out. The Stock Growers tries to be proactive. But, when you have a gag order on the advisory committee, we can’t be involved.”
Two stages of public consultation begin at the end of April, with recommendations and public input going to a government body in order to create a draft plan which will come back to the public for further input before being finalized.
Both ABP and the WSGA plan to convene subcommittees to review and respond to the SSRP recommendations.
Jeffares says all parties agree on the need for public consultation.
“Does (the SSRP recommendations) satisfy everybody and every issue? Probably not. But that’s why there’s a consultation process.”
To enhance the economic viability and competitiveness of agriculture.
To ensure that ecological goods and services are a valued and profit-generating part of the agriculture economy.
Support the diversification and sustainable growth of the agriculture industry.
Encourage investment, entrepreneurship and competitiveness by ensuring the agriculture industry is supported by an efficient and transparent regulatory environment.
Support irrigation expansion within districts as an important economic driver for rural communities with a portion of the water saved through improved publicly funded water-use efficiency measures. Secondarily, explore options with the water holder to secure a portion of the irrigation water efficiency gains to help meet in-stream conservation needs.
Support irrigation infrastructure improvements to help realize gains in water-use efficiency.
Identify and develop water storage.
Encourage agricultural production and value adding as a priority use for water saved by the licensee through irrigation efficiency measures.
Encourage and support rural municipalities to minimize the extent of agricultural land conversion and fragmentation.
Require and support municipalities to report on the extent of agricultural land fragmentation and conversion on a five-year basis.
Explore financial incentives and market opportunities for ecological goods and services that advance SSRP objectives and that go over and above what is required by basic agriculture management obligations.