The Regional ‘Plan to Plan’

The Regional ‘Plan to Plan’

South Saskatchewan Plan Avoids the Hard Choices

In September 2014 the Government of Alberta released the first South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) made under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA). On January 17, 2015 I was honored to present some thoughts on the implications of the SSRP to the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society.

The Ghost Watershed is on the Eastern Slopes upstream from Calgary. The Alliance is a local group of mostly volunteers who on this night attracted a full house of mostly community members. The highlight was a visual ‘story-telling’ about a project where money from a fine for driving a truck into the river was used to build a bridge and to restore a river bank. I first met this can-do organization through our mutual funder Alberta Ecotrust Foundation during the Ghost Cumulative Effects Study. This study simulated how changing land use practices impact environmental quality and some provocative trade-offs that may be required. For example, restricting off highway vehicles to appropriate trails could measurably improve water quality, but the kilometres of official trails necessary to accommodate the use would exceed that which currently exists. More provocatively, better practices in multiple industries still would not counteract the rate at which our current land use trajectory is depleting our natural capital. We need a serious discussion about which benefits we want the landscape to provide, and about the role of market economics in delivering those benefits. These types of findings are directly relevant to regional planning, so understandably some hopes were high.

As the Land Use Framework states, growth in Alberta means that the ‘old rules’ will cease to provide the quality of life we expect. As for the ‘new rules’, ALSA is contentious as it centralizes planning power in the provincial Cabinet and provides some untested conservation and stewardship tools. Regional planning has taken priority over promoting  the new tools and this has had serious implications for the SSRP.

The SSRP reflects fear of rocking the boat on land use, and as for the parts that are new, implementation will be a significant challenge as it relies almost entirely on the old rules and tools. Whether the SSRP advances the Land Use Framework may be a question of expectations going into the exercise. It includes environmental outcomes and aims to manage cumulative effects. It recognizes the need to tackle linear disturbance and recreation on public land and proposes future planning for that purpose. It also proposes use of underutilized existing tools, such as Heritage Rangelands and Public Land Recreation Areas. However, it includes little that would coordinate decision makers, little guidance for use of the new tools, and has no legal weight in any way that would alter business as usual in the land use industries. This is especially the case on private land which the plan practically avoids. Replacing any ‘old rules’ with new ones will require much further planning at what is technically the implementation stage, stakeholder trust in an ill-defined process, resources in a time of scarcity, and political leadership straddling an election.

Comments at the Ghost meeting suggested that the SSRP is a complicated plan, there remain deeper problems with the management of public resources, uncertainty about the public’s role and how best to preserve the good work done by the watershed community.

Click here for longer ELC commentary on the Implications of the SSRPELC analysis of SSRP (Feb 2015)

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