Watershed plan said to be missing local voice

South Saskatchewan Regional Plan Alberta ranchers seek recognition for their land and water stewardship efforts

The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan has been released with promises to protect Alberta watersheds and create more conservation areas while also allowing growth.

The provincial land use policy document outlines a strategy for energy development, watershed protection, sustainable farming and ranching, as well as forest management and tourism. It goes into effect Sept. 1.

Yet questions remain as to how different interests could be assuaged while creating more conservation areas and nature trails, and protecting land, air and water quality.

“There are really important pieces that are still missing and that will be really crucial for conservation outside the areas outside the parks,” said Brittany Verbeek of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

Rich Smith of Alberta Beef Producers said the plan seems balanced, but closer reading indicates more policies are coming.

“That could have significant im-pacts that we are not aware of yet,” he said.

The plan stressed the importance of agriculture, calling for municipalities to identify agricultural land and limit fragmentation by development.

It will also encourage more private deals to conserve land through conservation easements and promises to work with grazing associations, watershed groups, conservation organizations and invasive species associations.

During public consultations, ranchers argued for greater recognition of their land and water stewardship efforts.

The government agreed, said Alberta land stewardship commissioner Bev Yee.

“Many of the folks in the southeast corner of the province told us they have been practicing good stewardship for a long time,” she said.

But Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association president Larry Sears remains skeptical.

About 1,100 of the more than 5,700 leaseholders in Alberta who could be affected by the plans belong to the association.

Sears, who ranches near Stavely, said he wants more local input. He is concerned that promises of 20 year leases may not materialize for all ranchers.

“It is a case of the central planners not being in touch with reality,” he said.

“Planning is best done and most successful when it is done at a local level and they understand the im-pact.”

Protection of native grasslands on private and public land is a plan priority, environment minister Robin Cook said at the launch of the plan in Calgary July 23. Grazing leases will be extended from 10 to 20 years and in some cases, tenure on heritage rangelands in the Pekisko region in the southwest could be even longer, said Scott Milligan of Alberta Environment.

However, grasslands outside the heritage designation may not be as well protected.

Sears said that protections for heritage rangelands that limit activities, such as off-road vehicles and oil and gas exploration, could place added pressure on areas outside the official designation.

There is also no guarantee of a lengthier lease. The land will be inspected and the lease reviewed if it meets government criteria. However, there has been no details on the criteria required.

“There are too many regulations in place now. Government should be playing a very limited role. Instead, we are seeing much broader strokes of the brush in trying to manipulate and control every aspect. That should be left in local municipalities’ hands,” Sears said.

Environmental groups take the opposite view and want more protection of the headwaters and wild lands. They have argued that the list of new parks and conservation areas is not long enough.

Verbeek said many of those places should have been protected a long time ago. The plan also promises to support irrigated agriculture, which could allow for expansion and encourage more processing.

The report also stated that new farmers should be encouraged with government funded loans and provincial-federal government programs that involve business planning, financial training and education.

The province plans to create the Twin River and Onefour Heritage Rangeland Natural Areas in the southeast, which includes taking over the Agriculture Canada research substation at Onefour, where the native grasslands could be opened to further grazing. Current oil and gas tenures will be honoured and provincial grazing research implemented.

The South Saskatchewan plan covers an 83,764 sq. kilometre area stretching from the Canada-U.S. border to north of Calgary. It is home to nearly two million people.

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