[Note: The following was first published in the September 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen. If this seems out of sequence (by nearly a year) that’s because it is. As I wrote my column for August 2015, I kept referring to this piece and realized I had not posted it. So here it is.]
Copyright © 2014 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
As I write this, it is half-way through summer, midway between the summer solstice and the fall equinox. Like most people, I enjoy summers—the long and warm days, the green woods and colorful gardens, the birds and flowers, and of course, the hiking, biking, camping and fishing; all with family and friends. Of course, half over means there’s still a half to go. But here are some more-or-less random musings from our wanderings as we wind one season down and get ready for the next.
My wife and I had some visitors from the U.S., old school chums who finally decided to look us up (we’d only lived here 40+ years). What I like about guests from outside Alberta is that it’s a great excuse to show-off the province and visit places we hadn’t been in a while. One trip we made was down to Kananaskis Country, southwest of Calgary, where Betty and I worked in the 1970s (before it became K-country). Now, we have made several trips down there over the years, and know the area pretty well, but sometimes it takes the eyes of someone new to reopen your eyes to the value of things we have. This particular visitor was a mountain person from a mountainous State (Washington) who spends most of her free-time hiking and enjoying those mountains. So, we thought she might be just a bit jaded with seeing more mountains. Au contraire, she thought the drive down the foothills from our home west of Edmonton was glorious and K-country really special. We had good weather which always helps and the ranch-lands, foothills and mountains were spectacular, showing their true rugged beauty which makes the Canadian Rockies unique in the world.
We tent camped and hiked some of the many K-country trails and generally had a good time recalling old memories and enjoying the unique mountain beauty. Kananaskis Country is really a special place and Alberta Parks has worked hard to keep it that way. What’s interesting about it is how the government is managing the various uses, from sight-seeing, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing to fishing and hunting. Of course, before it became K-country, it was wilder and there was more adventure in each outing. Designated campsites, parks and other regulated areas do detract from the original experiences we had. However, with our ever-increasing population, such is necessary to conserve what we have.
Hunting is closed in some areas of K-country, like Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, but is open in most other areas during the seasons. Off-road vehicles are very much restricted to certain areas. This all ensures that conflict from the various uses is minimized. This is not to say that conflicts don’t exist, but they are kept to a minimum, as much as can be done with many people chasing fixed resources. Now, K-country is not perfect, but it is a good example of how our valuable wildlands can be managed to maintain environmental integrity while providing rewarding outdoor experiences for the many.
South Saskatchewan Regional Plan
Compare that with the South Saskatchewan Region Plan (SSRP), the final version of which was published by the Alberta Government in July not long after our return from K-country (www.landuse.alberta.ca). The plan is part of the overall Land-Use Framework (LUF) the government began back in 2008. This particular plan had been in the works since first announced in 2009. There were several rounds of public consultations through the drafting process; and if you’ve been following the controversy over the last draft, you know there was considerable public interest from all over the province.
Now, Kananaskis Country is a small part of the South Saskatchewan Region as defined by LUF. The region is 83,764 square kilometres in area (12.6% of the province) and includes the watershed of the South Saskatchewan River and its tributaries (e.g., Bow R., Oldman R.) from the headwaters to the Saskatchewan and U.S. borders. It also includes a portion of the watershed of the Milk River (Missouri River system). Kananaskis Country is mainly a recreational area in the mountains south of Banff National Park. So, I’m confining my comments to that part of the SSRP that deals with the mountains from Kananaskis to Waterton Lakes National Park; and indeed that’s where much of the controversy about the plan is localized.
The controversy deals with the age-old conflict of use versus conservation. About 1.8 million people live in the region, or 44% of the Alberta population, the most densely populated of the seven LUF regions (21.5 people/sq. km). So, there is considerable pressure on the region to provide the resources to keep people employed, while breathing clean air, drinking clean water and having places to go to recreate and enjoy the great outdoors. And these pressures don’t just come from the people in the region but from around the world.
In the 1970s, many people saw these issues coming and after much lobbying by conservation groups and others, Premier Peter Lougheed dedicated the new Kananaskis Country in 1978 to provide some protection for our valuable mountain ecosystems while encouraging recreational opportunities for many. Lougheed was a premier with a vision for Alberta that included a diversity of opportunities for all. Unfortunately, as our province has turned into a petro-state, that vision has eroded, and in many ways the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan reflects that.
If you download the 201 page document and scroll down to page 201, you come upon the map of the regional plan, showing the various land-use designations. Up in the northwest corner of the region you see K-country shown in a light-tan, illustrating how it buffers the fully protected Banff Park, allowing hunting/fishing in that area but little other resource exploitation. If you look down the eastern slope from K-country, you see many new wildland provincial parks (dark green), which provide some protection, but they’re small, disjointed and many only protect areas above tree-line. The rest of the region down to the Castle River area (where a new wildland park has been designated) is in the “green area” (light green on the map) where there is little protection from forestry or mining projects that can radically change fish and wildlife habitat and threaten both game and threatened species. Imagine what an amazing area the southwest mountains would be if the government had had an actual vision for it similar to what Lougheed was seeing.
Many environmental and conservation organizations have commented on the plan. Indeed the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative have issued news releases pointing out the many deficiencies, while praising some of the gains for conservation that were achieved. Both state they will work with the government to make the plan better. What is curious to me is why the oldest conservation organization in the province, the Alberta Fish and Game Association, has not issued any public statements about the plan. Do they agree with the plan, or the other conservation groups? Were they at the table during discussions? Did they form an alliance with the other groups, ensuring that at least some of the protected lands would include hunting and fishing? Your guess is as good as mine.
Comments are always welcome (below).