Can Alberta get land use right?

By Lethbridge Herald Opinion on July 29, 2017.

Lorne Fitch and Kevin Van Tighem

The best of planning anticipates and prepares for future excellence. The worst simply perpetuates past failures. Recreation planning currently underway for the spectacular public lands of Alberta’s Oldman drainage and Porcupine Hills appears aimed at the muddy middle. We can do better.

Past government failures have filled our headwaters with uncontrolled off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, summer-long squatters’ camps, gunfire, motorcycle racing, weeds, muddy streams and too many fish and wildlife species now classified as threatened.

Those failures drove many Albertans to turn their backs on the Forest Reserves as a recreational destination because of the reality and perception of danger and disenfranchisement. In effect, Albertans were displaced from their own best places.

When Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips directed her staff to work with the full range of stakeholders to develop science-based land-use plans, she offered us the chance to get them back. A first principle of such planning should be that our public lands should no longer be compromised by efforts to cram every imaginable economic, social, cultural and recreational pursuit into them. These are finite landscapes with intrinsic and important values, not the least of which is that they supply clean water to two out of every three Albertans.

Good plans start with science. In that regard, the government got off to a good start with a Linear Footprint Management Plan for the Porcupine Hills and Oldman headwaters. The footprint plan sets science-based thresholds for road and trail density at which water quality and many fish and wildlife species start to suffer. Unfortunately, road and trail densities are already up to 10 times higher than those thresholds.

Only by getting motorized use under control can Alberta protect our water supplies and recover already-threatened species.

That’s what the Recreation Management Plan for the area was meant to do: to bring OHV trails, camping and other recreational activities into alignment with the science-based limits in the footprint. This, unfortunately, is where planning seems to be going off the rails.

There is still a culture of helpless surrender among some of the bureaucrats and planners tasked with getting recreational use right. Their mindset appears to be that, regardless of a new government’s promises to Albertans, the Porcupine Hills and Oldman headwaters must accommodate all past activities, no matter how harmful. Their vision of the future is what they see in the rearview mirror. Rather than objectively ask, “Is this activity appropriate?” they still ask: “How can we accommodate everything, no matter how inappropriate?”

If that old-guard thinking shapes new recreation plans for Alberta’s public lands, it will entrench past management failures and ongoing land degradation in our future. Alberta deserves better.

A plan that truly respects the needs of all Albertans and the limitations of our public forest lands would:

– keep land, water and wildlife populations healthy by using science to define appropriate uses and then to set thresholds and limits.

– acknowledge the simple truth that some recreational activities (e.g. dirt bike racing) are too noisy and destructive to be permitted on public land.

– assure Alberta families that recreational anarchy, vandalism, random gunfire and other antisocial behaviours are history; make people feel safe about returning to our best green places.

– dedicate most of the planning area for quiet, non-motorized recreation which surveys show the great majority of Albertans prefer.

– bring an end to the noise, trespass and vandalism problems now plaguing ranchers and others who live adjacent to the forest reserves.

– formally establish long-promised wildland parks and buffer them from motorized use to protect their wilderness qualities

– set recreational carrying capacities rather than allow endless growth to degrade both recreation quality and the natural environment.

– plan not just for recreational development but for repairing and restoring the damage done by past misuse.

– replace random, unmanaged camping and its attendant sprawl and litter with properly sited and maintained camping areas.

– commit to ongoing monitoring to evaluate recreation, land health, fish and wildlife and other public benefits.

It’s time for old-guard government bureaucrats to stop whispering cynical advice into the ears of the planners. Bureaucrats, planners and citizens alike need to put healthy land, water and wildlife first, suppress our selfish tendencies and work towards delivering the best of our priceless legacy of public lands to future generations.

Lorne Fitch is a professional biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist and an adjunct professor with the University of Calgary. Kevin Van Tighem is a landscape ecologist and author of “Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta” and “Heart Waters: Sources of the Bow River.”