Great expectations: Keeping the promises of Alberta’s Land Use Framework a mammoth task

 

Great expectations: Keeping the promises of Alberta’s Land Use Framework a mammoth task

2/1/2009

Published in Alberta Oil Magazine, February-March, 2009
By Cindy Chiasson, Executive Director, Environmental Law Centre

A long-standing part of Alberta’s mythology has been the concept of no limits – limitless space, limitless resources, limitless beauty, limitless opportunities and limitless activities. Life, work and play in the province have proceeded for many decades on the basis that all we needed and more was there for the taking. However, the rapid growth of recent years and resulting conflicts have caused many Albertans to question these ideas and look more closely at how the province develops and what legacies will be left for future generations.

One of the significant steps taken by the Alberta government on this issue has been its Land Use Framework (LUF) initiative that was released last December after two years of stakeholder and public consultation. The province has acknowledged that there are indeed limits to our land and resources and that the existing land management system does not adequately deal with the demands being made on Alberta.

Currently, decisions that affect land use management are made on a case-by-case basis, with little consideration of the cumulative environmental, social and economic effects of multiple developments on a particular area. Public input in decision-making processes tends to be restricted to the latter stages of project development, after industry has invested significant time and money and less flexibility is available to change a project. By that stage, the topics of review permitted by regulators are quite narrow. Decision-making is often skewed in favor of economic factors, as these matters are most easily measured and communicated in a regulatory setting compared to environmental and social elements. Many projects require multiple regulatory approvals from a range of decision-making bodies and agencies with varying mandates and limited coordination between them.

The LUF is an ambitious undertaking intended to guide the management of Alberta’s lands and natural resources to achieve long-term environmental, social and economic goals. Key strategies include creating seven new land use regions and their land use plans; creating a Land Use Secretariat to implement the LUF; managing development based on the cumulative effects of activities; encouraging land stewardship and conservation; promoting efficient land use to reduce human effects on Alberta’s landscape; establishing a monitoring, evaluation and reporting system to inform and measure land use planning; and including aboriginal peoples in land use planning.

Expectations are high. Results of the province’s consultations show that Albertans want stronger provincial leadership on land use management; better integration and coordination of policies on land, air and water; greater clarity around the roles and responsibilities of the various land use decision-makers; improved conflict resolution processes; better land conservation and stewardship; improved land use information sharing; and increased consultation and opportunities for the public, stakeholders and aboriginal peoples to influence land use policies and decisions. Many of the interests involved in these consultations, including landowners, municipalities, environmental groups, agricultural operators and industry organizations, have provided input into the ongoing development of the LUF initiative and expect to participate in the creation of the legislation required to put the new land use system in place.

Challenges face the provincial government in its design and implementation of the LUF initiative. Chief among these is the overwhelming need for integration. The LUF policy lists 12 provincial departments or boards that establish rules affecting land use; this does not take into account the land-related roles of municipalities and federal authorities. It will be an immense task to coordinate responsibilities and processes amongst all of these decision-makers and to break down long-standing organizational silos of authority. Additionally, industry, environmental organizations and other groups have expressed frustration at the lack of clarity about the relationships, if any, between the LUF initiative and other policy developments such as the energy strategy, Alberta Environment’s anticipated Environmental Sustainability Act, the Water for Life strategy and renewal of Alberta’s clean air strategy. The possible links between these initiatives and the LUF process raise more questions than answers at this stage.

Another challenge is the issue of timing in the development and implementation of the LUF. Like Goldilocks and the three bears, the task is to set a schedule that is “just right.” The LUF sets out broad timelines, with some regional plans not completely developed until 2012, but does not establish specific milestones to measure progress to these longer timelines. At the other end of the spectrum, work is currently ongoing in the Lower Athabasca and South Saskatchewan regions, identified as priority areas, to appoint the Regional Advisory Councils and have those councils develop the regions’ land use plans for completion in 2010. This work commenced before the final version of the LUF policy was publicly released and before the legislation supporting the new land use management system has been introduced and passed in the legislature. This approach of implementing parts of the system while doing detailed design of that system raises many concerns and questions.

Additionally, the broad timelines and the staggered development of land use plans across the seven new regions run the risk of creating an uneven playing field between land users in different areas of Alberta, as priority regions would be subject to the new LUF approach while other regions would remain under the current land use management system until their plans are completed. This approach also raises the very real possibility of sparking rushes to develop land under the current land management system. To avoid these problems, the final LUF policy should include a number of transitional measures, including setting interim thresholds and providing temporary holds on development in high priority areas until those regional plans and related long-term limits are developed.

The LUF initiative offers great promise to address many of the dilemmas facing Alberta’s land use, including long-term planning, cumulative effects management and integration of many policies and government bodies. However, much work remains and many details need to be developed. It is clear that stakeholder involvement has been an important element to this stage and expectations are high, both in relation to future involvement and to the substantive content and implementation of the LUF. How well the provincial government will meet these expectations will become clearer when the supporting legislation is introduced in the 2009 spring session, as promised by Ted Morton, Alberta’s minister of sustainable resource development.

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