BY RICHARD SCHNEIDER
Our society is becoming increasingly fragmented, but one thing almost all Albertans will agree on is that it’s important to take good care of our environment, both for our own well-being and for the generations that will follow.
So how are we doing on the environmental protection front? The UCP government has taken heat for some of its policies, but navigating the complex trade-offs between economic development and environmental protection is never easy. To get a clear picture of where we currently stand, it’s useful to look back and examine how previous Conservative governments have approached this challenge.
We’ll begin with Peter Lougheed, Alberta’s first Conservative premier. In common with later premiers, he placed an emphasis on resource development and economic diversification. However, his government also took meaningful steps to protect the environment, particularly along the Eastern Slopes. Lougheed understood the concept of balance, saying that the economy, the environment, and social issues represent the three legs of a stool, and if any one of the legs is shorter than the others, the stool tips over. He established Kananaskis Provincial Park (now called Peter Lougheed Provincial Park), established the Environment Conservation Authority, and created the Coal Policy and the Policy for Resource Management of the Eastern Slopes, following years of public consultation.
Toward the end of Lougheed’s time in office, the oil boom was over and the economy was struggling. This led to the weakening of some of the environmental measures that had been enacted earlier and the disbanding of the Environment Conservation Authority. The retrenchment continued when Don Getty became premier in 1985. Given the crash in oil prices, Getty turned to expansion of the forest industry as a new source of revenue. A key step was allocating virgin forests in northern Alberta, encompassing an area greater in size than Great Britain, to forest harvesting. In contrast to Lougheed’s approach, there was no analysis of the environmental effects of this shift in policy, nor was there any public consultation. The 1980s were a period where environmental protection was put on the back burner and resource development was all that mattered.
Ralph Klein’s government, beginning in 1992, had a mixed record. An early order of business was completing Getty’s expansion of forestry, including the construction of the world’s largest kraft pulp mill, owned by Al-Pac, and several other major mills. By this time, the public had found its voice and the Al-Pac mill faced massive, ongoing protests. The mill eventually went ahead, but public awareness and expectations concerning resource management were fundamentally changed. As the tide of heightened environmental awareness gathered strength across the country, the Klein government shifted its stance and created the Special Places 2000 program. Through this program, 17,800 km2 were added to Alberta’s provincial parks system, tripling its size (this calculation excludes national parks).
One thing the Klein government was not good at was developing policy. By the time Ed Stelmach became premier in 2006, Alberta landscapes were crowded with overlapping industries operating in the absence of coordinated planning. The individual disturbances from wells, clearcuts, roads, and other activities were adding up over time, transforming our landscapes and placing increasing pressure on wildlife populations. Stelmach’s key contribution, following extensive public consultation, was the development of the Alberta Land-Use Framework, which sought to bring order to this chaos and place limits on cumulative impacts.
Under the Land-Use Framework, Alberta was divided into seven regions with the intent of developing a land-use plan for each region. Lougheed’s concept of balanced planning was taken out of cold storage and given new life, now under the heading of the “triple bottom line.” The first plan to be completed, in 2012, was for the northeast corner of the province, home to most of Alberta’s oilsands development. Under this regional plan, several new Wildland Provincial Parks were identified, totalling almost 15,000 km2. Together with Wood Buffalo National Park, these sites collectively form the world’s largest boreal protected area and comprise a full third of the provincial protected area system. The northeast regional plan also included formal commitments to establish cumulative effects thresholds and to develop a biodiversity strategy.
Unfortunately, Stelmach resigned before the land-use planning process could be completed. Only one other regional plan was delivered, for the southern region of the province, and after that the entire process ground to a halt. Many expected Rachel Notley to revive the planning process and tackle the cumulative effects issue when she became premier in 2015, but this did not happen. Instead, her government’s environmental protection efforts were site specific, involving the Castle region west of Pincher Creek, the Bighorn region west of Nordegg, and three northern sites intended to protect caribou range. Only the Castle initiative was successful, resulting in a new park.
Having reviewed how previous governments navigated the balance between economic development and environmental protection, we can now turn to the current UCP government. Sadly, the UCP record has been extremely lopsided in favour of development, out of step with public sentiment and even previous governments’ policies. The only entry in the protection column has been the expansion of the Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park in northeastern Alberta.
In all other respects, the UCP has prioritized development. Most alarming has been the progressive unwinding of protection measures and regulatory constraints that previous Conservative governments put in place. Some key examples include:
- A proposal to delist 164 parks, retracted after public backlash.
- A proposal to rescind the Coal Policy, temporarily retracted after public backlash.
- A proposal to increase the rate of forest harvesting by 30%, well beyond sustainable limits.
- A proposal to massively expand irrigation in southern Alberta, well beyond sustainable limits for the affected rivers. New legislation, the Red Tape Reduction Act, that facilitates the circumvention of existing provincial environmental constraints.
- An attempt to circumvent federal environmental protection laws, such as the Species at Risk Act and Impact Assessment Act, through new sovereignty legislation.
- The dismantling of Alberta’s Fish and Wildlife Division and Alberta Parks, reducing their effectiveness.
- A failure to honour government commitments to complete regional land-use plans, establish limits on cumulative effects, and develop a biodiversity strategy.
- The ongoing sale of public lands.
- A proposal to pay oil companies for their legally required cleanup of old wells, creating an expectation that industry is not responsible for meeting its environmental obligations.
Another distinctive feature of the UCP government has been the lack of consultation. Environmental policies that were based on years of public dialogue are being reversed with no public input at all. Rather than governing in the broad public interest, the UCP seems focused on satisfying a core base of supporters. This may explain the extreme positions they have taken, which are out of step with mainstream public values.
In the final analysis, the UCP government stands apart. While past Conservative governments have struggled to balance resource development and environmental protection, none have been as one-sided as the UCP, with the possible exception of the Getty government in the late 1980s. It is no wonder that even lifelong Conservative voters have become disenchanted with the party, which has morphed into something unrecognizable. Albertans deserve leadership that reflects our values. If yours include protection of our shared natural heritage, be sure to make your voice heard.
Richard Schneider is a conservation biologist who has worked on species at risk and land-use planning in Alberta for the past 30 years. He currently serves as the Executive Director of Nature Alberta.
This article originally ran in Nature Alberta Magazine - Spring 2023.