The Alberta Government has released the draft South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP), the second of seven regional plans for the Land Use Framework. The stated purpose of the SSRP is to set out a template to effectively manage growth and development across the entire region to see the economy of all sectors grow. This is no small feat considering the number of different industries on the land, the fact that 1.6 million people live in the region and the need to sustain the integrity and diversity of the landscape. In fact, the development of such an ambitious plan is a staggering project.
The document itself is over 150 pages but it is what is not contained in those pages that has the Western Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA) concerned. The draft plan seems to be full of broad outcome statements, but there is detail lacking in how the government hopes to achieve them. Instead of setting out a clear detailed plan of how they hope to achieve these outcomes, the document defers to various frameworks, plans or strategies; most of which don’t exist yet. It’s how these frameworks, plans and strategies within the SSRP are put into practice on the land that will impact the ranchers. The document just seems incomplete.
One thing the draft plan is clear about is the expansion and creation of parks and conservation areas. The amount of protected area in the Eastern Slopes was increased by 50 per cent of the existing protected area, from 22 per cent to 33 per cent.
Curiously, the plan does not increase the protected area in the southeast corner of the province with the exception of a slight increase to the area of Writing-on-Stone Park. This corner has received a lot of attention in the last few years because of the natural short-grass prairie ecosystem and the several species at risk it supports. Most recently, this area has an emergency protection order for the greater sage grouse imposed on it under the federal Species at Risk Act. We can only speculate on the reason for leaving this area of the province virtually untouched by the draft plan. Would this pave the way to implement the Plan for Parks? Would this make it easier for Nature Conservancy Canada to buy bigger easements? It’s a wait-and-see game.
The draft plan also addresses the high recreation pressure in the Eastern Slopes of the region, calling for the creation of off-highway trails, random camping sites and also the enhancement and expansion of fully serviced camping sites. These types of projects are expensive. One wonders where the government will find the money to pay for these when they have blasted through over half of the budget already. Put all this in the context of still having five more regional plans to build, each of which will require money to implement. The question of how the government can afford the Land Use Framework may very well become the elephant in the room.
In addition to building more recreation infrastructure, the plan calls for longer-term leases for recreational facilities (pg. 65). The reason behind this is to offer better security for lessees which results in a stronger interest in investing in and maintaining the facilities.
Parallels can definitely be drawn between recreational leases and grazing leases. A longer term on grazing leases will increase security so the lessee can justify investing in the maintenance and improvement of the ecosystem. But there is no mention of longer grazing-lease terms in the plan.
Without a doubt the Eastern Slopes in southwestern Alberta are home to some of the most stunning landscape in the province. What many don’t understand is that the reason the landscape is so amazing is due to the stewardship efforts of the ranchers and land managers — a service they have been supplying for free. The draft plan commits to the development of market-based instruments for ecosystem services. It is great to see the government step up and acknowledge the importance of this public service our ranchers have been supplying but the success of such instruments is very dependent on the design of the program. Just handing out incentive dollars is not going to work. It’s not sustainable. If a market is built around ecosystem services with a sound plan and a sustainable buyer, it will take care of itself and at a much less cost to the government. Unfortunately, the details on what these market-based instruments are is not included in the plan.
Overall, the plan does not give enough detail to judge whether it’s good or bad. It’s in how it plays out on the ground where we will find out how it affects the people who are on the landscape every day.