BY RICHARD SCHNEIDER
Last summer, Nature Alberta wrote about the shift in environmental policy that had taken place under the new UCP government. So where do matters stand now, a year later?
In the spring of 2020, the UCP government announced it would remove 164 sites from the provincial parks system. This prompted a grassroots Defend Your Parks campaign that generated thousands of letters from individuals across the province voicing their opposition. In response, the government rescinded the proposal and announced that all parks would retain their existing designations and protections. But we are not yet out of the woods. A new land vision for public lands has been announced with the intent to “review and modernize” existing legislation. When public consultations eventually begin it will be critical that Albertans again stand up to defend their parks. So don’t put away your lawn signs just yet.
Last June, the government rescinded the long-standing Coal Policy that restricted coal mining in sensitive parts of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Public pushback on this change was again intense and widespread, indicating another political miscalculation. The government was compelled to reinstate the Coal Policy (temporarily) and initiate public consultations about future coal development.
Public attitudes on this issue are very clear. Over 24,000 people responded to the government’s recent online survey about coal development, and environmental impacts were the top-ranked concern. Only 8% of respondents felt that economic benefits were very important. As far as most Albertans are concerned, opening up the Eastern Slopes to more coal mining is a non-starter.
Last month, the government’s pro-development agenda was dealt a serious blow when the review panel for the proposed Grassy Mountain coal mine ruled against the mine, stating that the project was not in the public interest. This decision has major implications for coal mining in the south Eastern Slopes. The Grassy Mountain mine was the first in a string of proposed new mines, and the odds of these other mines proceeding are now much decreased.
As part of its flurry of policy changes last year, the government quietly increased the rate of forest harvesting by 13%. This spring, Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen told the legislature he wants another 20% increase. This issue has not attracted as much public attention as park closures or coal mining, but it nevertheless has broad ecological implications. The rate of forest harvesting already exceeds ecologically sustainable limits in many areas, especially in the foothills. Further increases will exacerbate declines in species that depend on older forests. Species that that depend on intact forest habitat, such as caribou, grizzly bear, and several endangered trout species, will also suffer.
A new addition to the government’s list of development initiatives is a proposed 15% expansion of irrigation in the Bow River and Oldman River basins. Irrigation already accounts for three-quarters of all water allocations in these basins and these extractions are having a negative impact on the rivers, especially during prolonged dry periods. Given continued population growth and the drying effects of global warming, future water shortages seem inevitable. The expansion of irrigation seems ill-advised under these circumstances and several Alberta environmental groups have banded together to oppose the proposal.
Stay Vigilant and Engaged
Although the government has walked back many of its proposals in the face of public opposition, there is no indication that senior politicians have had an epiphany. They seem instead to be searching for work-arounds that will allow their development agenda to proceed. Thus, continued public vigilance and engagement will remain critical over the coming year. We can take heart in the knowledge that, collectively, our voices can make a difference.