In my past life, I worked as the Senior Conservation Planner for the Southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. I spent much of time with CPAWS SAB working on reviewing and critiquing a regional land use plan focused on the southern third of Alberta. This regional plan is currently in the last phase of public consultation and input is welcome until February 28, 2014. While this isn’t an advocacy post, I just couldn’t resist sharing some thoughts on this regional plan and what it could mean for Alberta’s threatened grizzly bear population.
South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) Basics
The SSRP drafting process has been going on since 2010. In that time, there have been multiple meetings with stakeholders, the public, and rights holders seeking input for the plan’s content. The SSRP is one of 7 regional plans that fall under the Land Use Framework, a comprehensive effort designed to ensure Alberta’s land uses balance environmental, economic, and cultural needs. The Alberta Government, from Ministers to bureaucrats, have devoted substantial amounts of time to create a plan that will meet this goal. It’s not an easy task and I don’t envy any one of the many men and women drafting this plan – it’s a hard job to try and define a balance between environment, economy, and culture. Trade-offs have be defined, and that means that not everyone will be happy all of the time.
Right now, the draft SSRP is open for public input. The Government website for the whole planning process is: https://landuse.alberta.ca/Pages/default.aspx; links to the draft SSRP, the online workbook for public input, and discussion documents can be found there too. If the online workbook is a little too onerous, you can also just email a letter to the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and/or your MLA (contact info for Alberta legislative representatives can be found here: http://www.assembly.ab.ca/net/index.aspx?p=mla_home) to share your perspectives and priorities for our region.
Once the public input has been gathered, the final plan will go to debate in the legislature. Once passed, the final SSRP will become law and shape all land uses in the South Saskatchewan Region for the next 50 years, up for review after 10 years. That’s a long time. The implications of what are in this plan are huge, and I think it’s an important thing for Albertans to get engaged in. This is our backyard and this is our opportunity to help shape what happens in it.
What the SSRP means to grizzly bears and other species at risk
The SSRP is our opportunity to put specific, landscape measures in place that will help recover species at risk. For example, arguably the biggest threat to grizzly bear recovery on public lands is the increasing number of roads. Most dead grizzly bears are found within 500m of a road and research has shown that a road density of 0.6km/km2 is what is required to recover grizzly bears populations. While roads are initially built for industrial access and resource extraction, many of them are never closed or decommissioned because they quickly become access for various recreational and public uses. More people further in to bear country is bad news for bears – it further fragments habitat, increases the chances of conflict with people. increases the potential for poaching, and increases the chances of bear-vehicle collisions. All of these things lead to more dead bears. Road density needs to be reduced in Southern Alberta if we want grizzly bears to persist in this landscape.
Roads also increase sedimentation of water ways and change the hydrology of the ecosystem. This impacts the viability of cut-throat and bull trout spawning sites, water quality, and the intensity of flooding events. Overall, a high and ever increasing road density reduces environmental health in multiple ways and impacts many species, not just grizzly bears.
The SSRP identifies several new “protected areas”, which would seem like a great idea for grizzly bears and other species at risk. But the new protected areas aren’t always in the right places and most of them are already protected through various policies. The proposed protected areas are focused in the high elevations (rock and ice) and don’t effectively protect the valley bottoms, which is where the most productive habitat is for grizzly bears and other species. The valley bottoms is also where corridors connecting habitat patches are found, and none of the new protected areas are effectively connected. This reduces the effectiveness of new protected areas to maintain Alberta’s biodiversity.
We all have to make sacrifices
One of the most important things that we as Albertans have to recognize is that we can’t have it all. This plan is asking all of us to define what our priorities are – whether that be resource extraction, recreation, agriculture, healthy cities, clean water, strong communities, or whatever. We all have different priorities based on who we are and where we live, and that’s great. It’s that diversity that makes Alberta such a fantastic place to live. I think many people have thought about what their priorities are, but what we’re not so good at thinking about is how our priorities affect other aspects of the region.
For example, I am a climber and avid hiker. I would love to have more roads that are passable to a car and staging areas so I could access more hikes in Kananaskis Country and more climbs in the Ghost. But I also want to prioritize grizzly bear recovery and biodiversity. I have to recognize that I can’t have both. More roads and staging areas will further jeopardize grizzly bear recovery. So what do I want? As you think about your priorities for the landscape, spend a little time defining what you’re willing to sacrifice too. I, as an active Albertan, am willing to sacrifice some recreational access for grizzly bear recovery. Everyone will be different, but taking the time to think about it will help to bring us closer together as a province and region.
The debates around the SSRP are heated and there are many different perspectives out there. The important thing to remember is that you’re not wrong. Whatever you want for this region is what you want and it’s what you should share with the Government. We won’t all get what we want, but making sure your input is included is important.
There are many people who have read over this plan and provided great feedback to the Government. Here are just a few:
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Southern Alberta Chapter (http://cpaws-southernalberta.org/campaigns/the-south-saskatchewan-regional-plan-ssrp)
Environmental Law Centre (http://environmentallawcentre.wordpress.com/tag/south-saskatchewan-regional-plan/)
Climbers’ Access Society of Alberta (http://climbersaccess.ab.ca/content/south-saskatchewan-regional-plan)
Oldman Watershed Council (http://oldmanbasin.org/)