Planning it right: Albertans collaborate on the best use of public lands

The public forest lands of Alberta’s Porcupine Hills and upper Oldman drainage (Livingstone planning area) have been in need of better care for many years now.

New land use plans, scheduled for public consultation and finalization this fall, may finally address that need.

If so, it will be because government finally teamed up with grassroots Albertans to get it right.

Commitments to protect and better manage Alberta forest reserves go back more than 40 years. The Peter Lougheed government brought in the Eastern Slopes Policy in 1977.

More detailed Integrated Re-source Plans for specific areas along the Rocky Mountain front ranges and foothills soon followed.

Our public lands haven’t lacked for promises and good intentions, but lack of funding, compromises to appease special interest groups, insider politics and simple inaction and neglect frequently got in the way of results. Degraded landscapes and damage streams were the result.

Demands for better stewardship of our public lands have ramped up over the years in response to ongoing degradation. To its credit, the previous government responded by creating a provincial Land Use Framework and, in 2014, by releasing a new South Saskatchewan Regional Plan.

Pointing out that our public forest lands produce most of southern Alberta’s water, sustain fish and wildlife and offer some of our best outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities, the plan put a priority on the Porcupine Hills and Livingstone areas for more detailed strategies to manage the land disturbance footprint and manage recreational use.

In 2015, the newly elected current government committed to follow through on those planning commitments. Following two years of intensive consultations and effort, draft Footprint Management and Recreation Management plans are to be released for public review in the coming weeks.

The government’s planning team appears to have done an exemplary job. It started by consulting the science literature and knowledgeable stakeholders, including off-highway vehicle user groups and area residents, to assess how much activity the land and water can handle without damage.

They met repeatedly with a wide variety of interested stakeholder groups and hosted open houses and workshops in nearby communities. Officials invited submissions and made themselves freely available to discuss issues with interested groups to make sure that nobody was left out.

Finally, the planners rolled up their sleeves to produce the plans. However, rather than go it alone, they established a Southwest Alberta Recreation Advisory Group in May to help them get it right.

The SARAG met on five occasions from May through early August to work through planning issues with government staff.

SARAG participants represented a full range of interested stakeholders, including First Nations, rural municipalities, the forestry and oil and gas industry, cattle ranchers, local residents, off-highway vehicle users, snowmobilers, hunters and anglers, mountain bikers, backpackers and hikers, outfitters and equestrian groups, stewardship organizations, and nature enthusiasts.

All SARAG participants were given repeated chances to present their views and concerns, table information and contribute ideas for the plans. As the meetings progressed, it became clear that planners were using suggestions from all quarters to shape the plan. It was a fair, balanced, inclusive and meaningful process: collaborative planning at its best.

All of us have a vital stake in ensuring that land use brings out the best of our public lands — and of ourselves.

We just might see that happen this time.

This op-ed was submitted on behalf of Alberta Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Alberta Hiking Association, Antelope Butte Ranch, Blue Ridge Outfitting and Guiding, Burton Cattle Company, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-Southern Alberta Chapter, Great Divide Trail Association, Livingstone Landowners’ Group, Municipal District of Ranchlands, Outdoor Recreation Council of Alberta, Porcupine Hills Coalition, Porcupine Hills Stock Association and Southern Alberta Land Trust Society.

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