Hiking in the Yukon. Image: Pat Morrow
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"I left inspired to protect the special places in my own backyard."
Sara Renner, Y2Y supporter

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Not Quite What the Conservationists Ordered

Southern Alberta's final land-use plan, which will guide planning for the next 50 years, was a disappointment for Y2Y and other conservation groups.

On July 23, 2014, the Alberta government revealed its final South Saskatchewan Regional Land Use Plan. Unfortunately, it is not quite what Y2Y and its partners were hoping for.

Click on the image to hear Karsten Heuer's reaction to the final plan on Alberta Primetime.

For decades, Y2Y and its partners have been advocating for full protection of the Castle Watershed. Not only is it home to the bull trout and the province’s threatened grizzly bears, but its waterways ultimately provided drinking water to communities downstream. Y2Y and its partners were very disappointed to read that the plan only protects half of Castle area.

“There is little improvement over the last draft of the SSRP,” says Wendy Francis Y2Y Program Director. “Albertans have been very clear that they wanted to see the entire Castle Special Place protected from mountain top to valley bottom, and that hasn’t happened. All the government has done is change the designation of the Castle Conservation Area from Public Land Use Zone to Wildland Park.”

According to Francis, the total of 54,600 hectares (134,919 ac), most of which is still rock and snow, falls far short of the 102,000 hectares (252,047 ac) Albertans have been demanding for three decades. Most importantly, low elevation forests, riparian areas, and unique front-range canyons remain open to development and logging.

The lack of protection of the Castle puts into question the SSRP’s ability to meet its mandate to resolve conflicts over land use planning in the southern part of the province.

Y2Y President, Karsten Heuer, finds the lack of protection particularly frustrating. As a solutions-based organization, Y2Y reached out to industry and raised the funds to develop partnerships that would not only see the Castle protected, but also create an economy based on restoration. This would employ people and their machinery to pull out roads and reshape the slopes back to their original state, and to replant the forests that have been lost.

Whaleback Ridge. Photo: Stephen Legault

This model has been highly successful in the U.S. In Oregon for example for every $1 million spent between 15 – 24 jobs are created. Studies further suggest the economic benefits of habitat restoration extend far beyond jobs but it creates a ripple effect through the community, multiplying the benefits.

“This should have been easy for the government to do,” says Heuer, “but instead of listening to common sense solutions, the government took the easy way out.”

Questionable Protection for the Eastern Slopes

Beyond southern Alberta’s Castle Special Place, other areas along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountain gained some protection. Seven new or expanded Wildland Provincial Parks are included in the plan, all of which are within the Yellowstone to Yukon region and total more than 100,000 ha (250,000 ac).

All of these areas will be protected from new industrial development, timber harvesting, and, except for the Heritage Rangeland, grazing. Of these, the new 34,350 hectares (85,000 ac) Pekisko Heritage Rangeland is a great addition as it protects important foothills landscapes.

Elk cows and calves. Photo: Karsten Heuer

Unfortunately, this is not enough. The plan mostly protects high elevation lands that are not of interest to the energy or forestry industry, and therefore not in conflict with other values.

This is of particular concern because a recent study by Global Forest Watch Canada showed the rate of forest loss along Alberta’s lower elevation Eastern Slopes is more than double the Canadian average and significantly greater than in Alberta’s oil sands region. Without more protection, there will be a continual loss of forests and their important flood and drought protection qualities.

Connectivity Language Provides Some Glimmer of Hope

One new addition to the final draft gives us some glimmer of hope. As part of its work to influence the plan, Y2Y and its partners advocated for more protection for lands that allow wildlife to move between core habitats.

Based on research and input from Y2Y, the plan creates a new pilot connectivity zone on public lands between the Pekisko Heritage Rangeland and Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park. This new Special Management Area is created with the intent of sustaining foothills fescue grasslands, while allowing existing activities to continue. The exact management regime is unclear and Y2Y will work with the Alberta government and other groups to influence the management of this zone.

“This is the first time the government has established a management zone for the purpose of enhancing the connections between habitats,” says Francis. “This is an important step forward.”

More Work To be Done

Despite the fact the plan is final there is still room to influence its implementation.

For example a Biodiversity Management Framework will be developed by 2015 to determine how to measure the health of habitats and wildlife in southern Alberta, and to create management plans to support their growth.

A plan to manage the linear footprint (e.g., roads, trails, pipelines, seismic lines, etc.) in some areas will also follow by as early as 2015. This timeframe was advanced from the draft plan largely due to comments from Y2Y and our allies.

Finally, there will be new recreation (i.e., motorized access) planning in the Porcupine Hills (2015) and Livingston (2016) areas, and in other areas as practicable.

The new land-use plan for southern Alberta has great implications for the health of the land and the wildlife that depend on it. Y2Y will continue to influence its implementation and ensure our landscape is thriving and able to support the needs of people and wildlife.