More than three dozen former top provincial biologists are asking the Alberta government to stick with conservation efforts in a vast area of west-central Alberta despite what they call misinformation from an Opposition member of the legislature.
“We were very concerned about the misinformation, the inflamed rhetoric and the lack of a long-term vision that perspective provides for the Bighorn,” said Lorne Fitch, a longtime fisheries biologist and University of Calgary professor who is one 37 signatories to the open letter to Premier Rachel Notley and Environment Minister Shannon Phillips.
In November, the New Democrats announced eight new parks covering 4,000 square kilometres along the eastern edges of Banff and Jasper national parks in the so-called Bighorn Country.
It features mountains, foothills, forests, lakes, streams and the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River that more than a million Alberta residents depend on for drinking water. The area has been considered for protection since the 1980s and its core remains relatively free of energy, forestry and farming.
The plan calls for a variety of permitted activities and offers $40 million over five years for campsites and other infrastructure. Off-highway vehicles, horse packing and hunting would continue, although with new restrictions.
Grazing leases would continue. No existing trails would be closed.
Watch below: The Alberta government announced a new $40-million plan to designate eight areas of the Bighorn region of the eastern Rocky Mountains as protected ranges modelled after the Peter Lougheed project that designated Kananaskis Country a provincial park.
“We can go back to the regional planning process, which was working great,” he said. “There’s no need to rush this through before the election.”
That process has recommended conservation areas very similar to the proposed Bighorn parks, areas that were first outlined as long ago as 1988.
The plan remains open for public comment until the end of January. Fourteen public and invitation-only information sessions were scheduled in five communities between December and Jan. 31. Further consultation is planned through the spring.
Still, Nixon said many people remain uncertain about the plan’s impact on industry and land use and suggested it could take another year to gather input. He said the government has been overly reliant on information from environmental groups and has only recently opened up the process.
“There are many people who have concerns,” he said.
Fitch said the signatories to the letter, who have held some of Alberta’s highest conservation jobs and have between them more than 1,000 years of experience, all believe action is required now. He said the density of trails and resource roads in the Bighorn is probably already well above the level at which environmental damage occurs.
“We’re already seeing the impacts of that, particularly on native trout,” he said.
The letter, which calls the Bighorn proposal appropriate, suggests there are limits to Alberta’s natural resources and “we overuse them at our peril.
“Unfortunately, this is not a commonly held perception, or a popular one,” the letter said. “Our landscapes and watersheds have been neglected, we expect too much of them and they are coming apart at the seams.
“It can’t be a free-for-all anymore.”
© 2019 The Canadian Press