B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve will be divided into two zones — opening up much of the Interior's farmland to more development — under changes introduced today by the provincial government.

Under the new system, Zone 1, which covers prime farmland in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley, the Okanagan Valley and Vancouver Island, will see very few changes.

But Zone 2, covering farmland in the North, the Kootenays and the rest of the Interior, will see farmland protection rules loosened to allow for more non-farming activities on the land.

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Gas wells like this one dot the landscape of northeastern B.C. in the pursuit of natural gas. (CBC)

Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm says the new system will make for better use of the land.

"The improvements include the creation of two ALC [Agricultural Land Commission] administered zones to better recognize the province's regional differences. In Zone One, where land is in greater demand and there are development and population pressures, ALC decisions will continue to be made on the basis of the original principle of preserving agricultural land.

"In Zone 2, where growing seasons are shorter and there are lower value crops, ALC decisions will now, in addition to the original principle, include additional considerations to provide farmers with more flexibility to support their farming operations."

Commission to remain independent

Under the new system the Agricultural Land Commission, which administers and regulates land in the ALR, will remain an independent body, said Minister Bill Bennett, who is in charge of the government's core review process.  

"These improvements achieve our goals of supporting the ALC in its role as independent decision maker, protecting our high quality farmland and still supporting farmers to get ahead," said Bennett in statement released on Thursday.

But farmland advocates are concerned such changes will lead to more development because it will be easier for oil and gas companies to use Zone Two land for activities like drilling for oil and gas.

The changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve come as the province releases the results of its core review into how the current system operates.

The ALR was created by the NDP in the early 70s to protect the province's farmland from industrial and urban development.

With files from Stephen Smart