The Alberta government released its long-awaited plan for the South Saskatchewan region of the province on Wednesday.

The province says the new South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) will expand conservation areas and protect watersheds and native grassland areas.

The plan includes eight new or expanded conservation areas, including the new 54,588-hectare Castle Wildland Provincial Park and the 34,356-hectare Pekisko Heritage Rangeland, the province said.

The plan also envisions six expanded provincial parks and recreation areas, adding 1,511 hectares and calls for 12 new “primitive recreation” areas for camping and trail access.

New strategies for responsible energy development, sustainable farming and ranching, forest management, and nature-based tourism are also part of the plan, the province said.

Plan covers large part of southern Alberta

The South Saskatchewan region covers an 83,764-square kilometre area that stretches from the Canada-U.S. border to Crossfield. It includes the South Saskatchewan River Basin, the Milk River Basin and the Alberta portion of the Cypress Hills. It is the most populated part of the province with about 1.8 million people, the province says.

“The South Saskatchewan region is without question one of the most beautiful areas of our province with its breathtaking mountains, rolling grasslands and many lakes and rivers,” said Premier Dave Hancock.

“Albertans are proud of the beauty of our province and the new land-use plan will manage the growth pressures in this region so our children and grandchildren will benefit from a pristine environment and a growing economy."

Conservation groups pan the plan

Some environmentalists are critical of the plan saying it should have gone further to protect key areas — particularly the Castle Special Place, north of Waterton Park. They are concerned the rules would be still too loose regarding off-highway vehicle use, logging and oil and gas development.

“The government found it easier to ignore the concerns of the vast majority of Albertans about the Castle than to stand up to industry and motorized recreation groups,” said Gord Petersen of the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition (CCWC) in a release.

The plan will see more of the Castle region protected, but conservationists wanted twice as much land included says Sean Nichols of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

"There is some commercial activity but it's not a huge driver, so it's puzzling to us, we aren't entirely sure what that's so hard to accomplish," said Nichols.

But Environment Minister Robin Campbell says the plan strikes the right balance of recreation and economic opportunity while protecting the environment and achieving conservation goals.

"We all need to be environmental stewards, but we also need to ensure people can work," said Campbell.

The SSRP sets out new guidelines to manage the sale of public lands and minimize the conversion of intact native grasslands.

“This distinctive Alberta landscape, prized in North America, continues to exist because of the stewardship practices of local ranchers. The SSRP extends grazing leases for ranchers demonstrating strong stewardship practices from 10 to 20 years,” the province said in a release.

The plan, which was developed with a 50-year timeframe, goes into effect Sept. 1.

The province estimates the plan’s first year of implementation will cost $4.5 million in operating expenses plus $1.2 million in capital costs. 

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The South Saskatchewan region of Alberta covers an 83,764-square kilometre area that stretches from the Canada-U.S. border to Crossfield. (Government of Alberta)