Wilderness group disappointed with SSRP

By Student on August 8, 2014.

Melissa Villeneuve


The recently released South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) is a “big missed opportunity to create more meaningful protection” for regional landscapes, according to conservation specialist Brittany Verbeek of the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA).

“We were pretty disappointed actually in the final plan,” said Verbeek.

After five years of contributing suggestions to the SSRP, the AWA supported the process from the start and many members attended the consultation sessions. “We always advocate for public consultation in these important land-use plans and processes,” she said. “The biggest thing is that it was great that they did it, but we felt that they didn’t really listen to Albertans.”

Verbeek said it was good to see some of the Castle wilderness become Wildland Park, but only about half of it (546 square kilometres) was included and they were hoping to see it preserved in its entirety.

“We felt like it was a small step forward. Many of those really important lower valleys and foothills areas that are critical habitat areas for a lot of our species at risk, and also just for general biodiversity and headwaters protection, weren’t included in the park.”

Also missing from the plan was legislated protection in the grasslands area.

“That’s one of the areas in the southern region that is so important because eighty per cent of our species at risk are in those grasslands,” Verbeek explained. “We really need to see a rollback from industry and from the conversion of native grasslands to agriculture in those areas. We’re losing a lot of species and there is a lot at risk.”

Verbeek said when the Regional Advisory Council recommended conservation areas on public lands in the Milk River and Wild Horse Plains, the SSRP recognized those areas as important yet didn’t put any protection on them.

“They could have taken that step further and actually designated those areas as parks or heritage rangeland, and continued to have sustainable grazing, but pull back industry off them. That’s what we were hoping to see,” Verbeek said.

She said the SSRP has taken good steps forward in terms of looking at the landscape as a whole and the cumulative effects on certain areas. While she acknowledges that there are several subplans in the works that will pinpoint some specific areas, she is frustrated those plans are delayed.

“For example, the biodiversity management framework is a really important (subplan) for ecological integrity and it is still waiting to be released, I think by the end of 2015. They’re also talking about creating a trails management and framework plan,” said Verbeek. “Those plans are really important and they need to be developed and implemented as soon as possible. Conservation is still on hold while industry and development continues.”

Shannon Frank, executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council (OWC), agrees that it is important to get these subplans into place quickly, and she understands it’s difficult for people to be patient.

“Most of what’s in (the SSRP) is still promises, saying this will happen by this date, which is good to see deadlines and I think it shows commitment that it actually will get implemented and it’s not just going to sit on a shelf,” said Frank.

“It’s always difficult to be patient and wait for things to happen on the ground when you see nothing happening. I can share the pain. It takes time to sort out what is scientifically valid and what is (or isn’t) supported by the community and how far do you go to protect something. Even our communities are not all on the same page. It’s a difficult task.”

Overall, Frank is happy the SSRP exists and says it’s important to remember that regional planning is new to our province. She said it’s a good step toward managing large landscapes and the cumulative effects of all types of use, and she encourages people to continue to participate in the government consultations.

“The first thing to do is set some goals and targets. We need to let the government know what we expect the limits to be or not to be and what we want to see on the ground. I do feel they are trying to listen and it’s just a really difficult, long process and not everyone is going to be happy.”