Alberta abandons previous Bighorn strategy

NDP had planned to develop eight new parks in the region; cattle producers worried about lack of grazing lease details

A controversial plan for changes in west-central Alberta’s Bighorn country, put forward by the previous government, has been scrapped by the United Conservative Party government and its new environment and parks minister.

Jason Nixon said last week that the government will renew efforts to complete the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan and base any future changes for Bighorn upon it.

“We see the better path forward on this file to go back to the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan and that process and work with the community and stakeholders to continue to manage the Bighorn area the best way possible,” Nixon said in a May 9 interview.

“The previous government’s plan was already rejected by both the municipalities (Clearwater and Brazeau counties) and the First Nations communities involved, and quite frankly the public as a whole, in the areas where it would have been implemented.”

The previous government and former Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips had proposed eight new parks in the Bighorn region, a popular recreation area between Banff and Jasper national parks.

The plan and a perceived lack of consultation led to concerns about future forestry operations, oil and gas exploration and various recreational pursuits like random camping and off-highway vehicle access.

Cattle producers with grazing leases in the Bighorn region were also concerned about the future stability of those arrangements.

Nixon said grazing leases and management of grazing reserves will be addressed in the regional planning process.

“I think one of the concerns that we had with the NDP’s … plan is that a lot of questions on how those leases and the grazing reserves would have been impacted were not answered, and I think that’s a prime example of why the NDP’s plan was flawed in our books. We should go back to the NSRP process so we can make sure we’re getting the proper feedback from groups like that.”

Tom Lynch-Staunton, government relations and policy manager with Alberta Beef Producers, said lack of detail about grazing lease management in the previous plan hindered an assessment of its merit.

“We were never opposed to the overall concept of either a park or land-use planning in the area. What we were mostly concerned about was the speed of implementation of this, without proper consultation with the stakeholders and I think that was a pretty common concern,” he said.

“There wasn’t really a lot of detail in the proposal as it was about how they were going to manage all the different land-use categories in the area.”

The previous government assured leaseholders that existing arrangements would continue. That pleased the Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association, as stated in its submission to government, though it also expressed concern that there was no provision for expansion of grazing rights.

On behalf of ABP, Lynch-Staunton said producers want to ensure grazing remains a primary use of public lands in the Bighorn region.

“So there’s two things: how do we ensure that those grazing leases are secure for landowners so they can plan appropriately, but also so that they can incorporate their own environmental stewardship practices to take care of that land properly.”

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