Edmonton

Bighorn parks proposal will not go ahead, says Alberta's environment minister

Alberta's new environment minister says he will scrap the previous government's proposed plan for protected areas in western Alberta.

Jason Nixon says plan introduced by the previous NDP government was flawed

The plan, introduced by Rachel Notley's NDP government, aimed to protect the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains near Nordegg, Alta. (Government of Alberta )

Alberta's new environment minister says he will scrap the previous government's proposed plan for protected areas in Bighorn Country.

Last November, the NDP government announced eight new parks covering 4,000 square kilometres along the eastern edges of Banff and Jasper national parks.

Environment Minister Jason Nixon said the United Conservative Party government will not go ahead with that proposal.

"We were very clear that the NDP's plan for the Bighorn was flawed," Nixon said Tuesday in an interview.

"It was the worst consultation process that I've seen. Second, that there was a tremendous amount of economic concerns and questions that were not answered. There were also some environmental questions and concerns that were not answered.

"All of the First Nations communities in the area and all of the municipalities in the area have outright rejected the NDP's plan."

The UCP government will return to the North Saskatchewan regional planning process, Nixon says. (LoveyourHeadwaters)

Residents and municipal officials have raised concerns about how the proposal might affect oil and gas exploration, the forestry industry and off-road vehicle use.

The NDP's plan called for a variety of permitted activities and provided $40 million over five years for campsites and other infrastructure.

Off-highway vehicles, horse packing and hunting would have continued, though with new restrictions. Grazing leases would have remained and no existing trails would have been closed.

Shannon Phillips, who was environment minister under the previous NDP government, called the news disappointing for Albertans.

"Clearly this new minister is not interested in conservation, which is not surprising considering his record," she said in a statement.

Phillips said a majority of Albertans supported protecting the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River, which provides drinking water to more than a million people in central and northern Alberta — including Edmonton.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society was also concerned by the UCP government's plan to cancel the proposal.

"It's a short-sighted decision," said Kecia Kerr of the organization's northern Alberta chapter.

"The idea for protection of this area has a very, very long history that goes back decades. The concept to protect the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River is not something that just came out of the previous government."

Kerr said it's an important area for many species and also the source of drinking water for all communities along the river, including Edmonton.

"The protection of this area is really just long overdue," she said.

Nixon said the government will return to the regional planning process and move forward from that perspective.

"The headwaters portion of this — most of it exists in the national parks and in what's called public land use zones," he said. "It's important that we recognize there are some mechanisms in place, and those will continue."

Nixon pointed out that the region is massive compared to every other provincial wildland area, except Kananaskis. It encompasses numerous municipalities, counties and industrial activities and "is the backyard for Alberta recreation for much of Edmonton and Calgary."

Its operation involved a number of recreation and non-profit conservation organizations, partnerships that Nixon said weren't addressed in the previous plan and are critical to successful management of the area.

"The eastern slopes have been managed for decades, for a century in some cases, by some really great non-profit organizations who seem to have not been brought around the table," he said.

"We need to partner with people to manage these landscapes. This is not something that the government can do by themselves."   

Nixon said he wants to see both an economic and environmental assessment of the proposal to better understand the challenges.

"We still have to make the right environmental decision but we should understand all of the factors that are taking place and be able to answer those questions for the community," he said.

As an example, he said, there were concerns for some of the developments within the NDP plan and whether they would have negative effects on wildlife.

Overall, Nixon said, they need to have better consultation.

Kerr said she hopes that includes a careful review of the previous work and incorporating it into the new plan.

"A lot of resources have already gone into this, and it would be a shame for all that time and financial investment to be wasted," she said.

"We look forward to working with the government on the development of a North Saskatchewan Regional Plan that includes appropriate legislative protection of the headwaters of this important watershed."

With files from CBC News

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