Lower Athabasca Regional Plan: Conservation areas mean something.

Lower Athabasca Regional Plan: Conservation areas mean something.

A Draft Lower Athabasca Regional Plan has barely been public for a week and already the criticisms sound familiar: Conservation areas are based more on low value energy resources than high value wildlife habitat. Even then existing energy leases can be renewed.  Delaying a biodiversity strategy is the order of the day.  For all the public process, some decisions were made in advance. The Terms of Reference for the Lower Athabasca did not provide for any scenario where oil sands extraction would slow down.

The real question is what features of a plan for this unique region are relevant to the other six. From that perspective, the types of conservation areas are what matters.  The Regulatory Details Plan, the only part of the Regional Plan intended to be legally binding, creates six new conservation areas.  Four will be parks managed by the Minister of Tourism, Parks, and Recreation.  Two will be public land use zones managed by the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development. Not only can a Regional Plan create new parks, but on the only scorecard to date, they are the preferred conservation designation by a rate of 2:1.

So what is in a name?  Much like existing Forest Land Use Zones, the new public land use zones are more enabling of forestry than the new parks.  Beyond that, the two Ministers can each take whatever steps they find desirable to advance the regional plan. Their only mandatory duty is to establish a program to evaluate the effectiveness of the area in meeting the Implementation Plan.  Some future evaluation might find that a conservation area was ineffective because no steps were taken to meet a plan that wasn’t binding.  Or it might find that, despite good management intentions, the legal tools were missing.  Any conservation tools under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act are left to regulations not required to be made. This void is one that the chosen land manager must fill with its own legislation.

Looking ahead to the South Saskatchewan Region, the Castle Special Management Area is languishing as a Forest Land Use Zone.  This designation is allowing the Castle to be logged on the eve of regional planning, which can only increase support for a park proposal.  Looking two regions ahead to the North Saskatchewan, the Bighorn Backcountry suggests that Forest Land Use Zones have potential if supported by award-winning public monitoring.  With much time before any future regional plans, the Lower Athabasca might even provide some results for comparing the options.

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