[Note: The following was first published in the August 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2014 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
Back in 2008 the Alberta Government released the Land-use Framework (LUF) that, according to then Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton, “provides a strategic blueprint for all levels of government and Albertans as we make decisions today about the province we want in the future.” However, what was presented was not the blueprint; it was indeed a frame on which to hang specific policies for the development of land-use regions across the province. Seven regional land-use plans were to be created by 2012 that would indeed provide the strategic blueprint for developing each of the seven regions: Upper Peace, Lower Peace, Upper Athabasca, Lower Athabasca, North Saskatchewan, Red Deer, and South Saskatchewan. Well, 2012 has come and gone, and today we only have one completed regional plan (Lower Athabasca) and one draft regional plan (South Saskatchewan).
To say the original development plan for the total Land-use Framework was ambitious would be an understatement. However, anyone who was involved with the Lower Athabasca or the South Saskatchewan planning processes knows how complicated and time consuming each of these efforts has been. With only one crew of government workers to manage the process, and a host of public consultations, it will be a few years before we see plans completed for the whole province.
That said, the planning is going forward with the announcement this year of the start of the process for the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan. It appears that the priority for developing these plans has been which regions require them the most. With the intense tar sands development in the northeast, it was obvious the Lower Athabasca plan took first priority. Likewise, the human population growth and variety of intense development in the southwest was the impetus for next developing the South Saskatchewan plan, and similar reasons most likely pushed the North Saskatchewan plan forward.
This is not to say the other regions don’t need plans. Resource development pressure is everywhere in this province and a framework that defines what can be done where and when to conserve what we have for the province’s future is sorely needed. That this planning should have been done 10 or 20 years ago goes without saying. But it wasn’t and so here we are.
North Saskatchewan Region
Like the other regions, the North Saskatchewan Region (NSR) is roughly based on the watershed of a major river. However, the boundaries have been adjusted along municipal and landscape lines to better facilitate the plan’s development and implementation. Also like the other regions, the NSR is large (85,780 square km, 13% of province) with a diversity of landscapes from the forested eastern slopes and foothills, through the central parklands, to the prairie in the east and the boreal forest in the north. According to the LUF document, Profile of the North Saskatchewan Region (2014, available from www.landuse.alberta.ca), 1.52 million people live in the region (38% of Alberta population), bringing many competing interests, including: forestry, agriculture, petroleum and other industrial development; tourism, residential, cultural and recreational development; and the needs for potable water, healthy air, protected areas for wildlife, as well as suitable places for hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife watching.
The Planning Process
I have been watching the overall LUF process since the idea was first made public in 2007. Although I have interests in the Lower Athabasca and South Saskatchewan regions, the North Saskatchewan Region is where I live and do most of my work and recreation. So, I feel obligated to participate as much as I am able in the planning process for this particular region. I attended one of the 21 public participation workshops that were held across the region last May and June, designed to help the government get a handle on the development issues in the region as they proceed to develop a draft plan—the Phase 1 consultations.
Each of the workshops was held during the day, followed by a “public information” session in the evening for those who couldn’t make the workshop but wanted to know more about the plan and how they could contribute. The people who attended the workshop I attended in Spruce Grove were a diverse lot. There were representatives from local municipalities, forestry and other industries, various environmental and recreational interest groups, and the general public. Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) facilitated the workshop with the help of Stantec. Topics were discussed in the “knowledge café” facilitation style where participants are broken into small groups to discuss specific issues and concerns. Having the experience of two regional planning processes under their belts, the LUF team was very effective at focusing the discussion, while allowing everyone a chance to express their views.
As outlined in the Terms of Reference for the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (www.landuse.alberta.ca), the plan is to address the following broad topics:
- maintaining growth opportunities for key economic sectors—including diversifying the economy
- effectively managing air, water, land, biodiversity and ecosystem function to sustain ecosystems and biodiversity
- maintaining quality of life for residents within the region, including increased recreational and cultural experiences
—all to be done “in balance with environmental considerations.”
Each one of these topics could have easily taken up a full workshop. However, the idea of the Phase 1 consultations is to get the concerns of participants on the record for consideration by the Regional Advisory Councils that are appointed for each region. What was interesting to me was the divergent interests expressed, and most importantly, the willingness of people to listen to the concerns of others.
If you missed the Phase 1 consultations, there are still plenty of chances to present your views and concerns. After the NSR Regional Advisory Council (RAC) considers the input from Phase 1, it advises what the key priorities of the plan should be. The government then releases an online survey to gather feedback on the RAC’s recommendations. From the recommendations and feedback, the government drafts the regional plan.
The draft plan is released to the public and Phase 2 public consultations take place. In reality these are the crucial consultations where people can see what is being proposed and how it might affect them and their interests. The government then takes the feedback and drafts the final plan which is submitted to provincial cabinet for approval. This plan is then to form the basis for all future decisions regarding development in the region.
The Land-use Framework is a worthwhile exercise if just to let people know the extent of the issues and conflicts we face in each of these regions. However, you will have to excuse me if I wax sceptical about how effective these plans will be. The one elephant in the room that people prefer to ignore is that continued human population growth (both local and world-wide) will increase pressures on our finite resources that will restrict our future choices of where we can go and what we can do. Is there a limit to what can be sustained? Perhaps the LUF process will make that pachyderm more visible.
If you have concerns about the future of the NSR and want to participate in its plan, visit the LUF website (www.landuse.alberta.ca) for more information.