Government approves Lower Athabasca Regional Plan
By: MELISSA BARR
| Posted: Tuesday, Sep 04, 2012 05:10 pm
The controversial Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) was approved late last month and came into effect Sept. 1.
The plan is the first regional plan completed under the Government of Alberta’s Land-use Framework, which divides up the province into seven regions and aims to balance environmental, economic and social needs across that region.
“We need a plan because the demand from industry, from recreation, from municipalities, from farming – everybody wants a piece of the puzzle,” said Genia Leskiw, MLA for Bonnyville – Cold Lake. “We want to have reserves for our future generations to enjoy recreation. We want to protect farmland, we want to protect waterways.”
The Lower Athabasca Region is over 93,212 square kilometres, including Bonnyville, Cold Lake and St. Paul. It is bordered in the north by the Northwest Territories, stretching down to the border of the County of Vermilion River, St. Paul County and Smoky Lake County. In the east, it is bordered by Saskatchewan and in the west by Wood Buffalo National Park, the Municipal District of Opportunity and Mackenzie County.
According to the plan, the oilsands are one of the most important characteristics in the region, though the diversified economy also includes mining, forestry, agriculture and tourism.
The plan works to provide “certainty for development of the oilsands” as well as supporting further economic diversity.
Ecosystems in the region include areas of Boreal forest and extensive wetlands, as well as over 500 plant species, 28 species of fish, a number of bird species and mammals like moose, wolves, lynx and muskrats. The plan also makes special mention of the woodland caribou, which are identified as “species at risk” under the federal Species at Risk Act and the provincial Wildlife Act.
Three water basins make up the region – the Athabasca River Basin, the Beaver River Basin and the Peace/Slave River Basin.
In terms of environmental protections, LARP established six new conservation areas. With this move, 22 per cent of the region is now conserved land, which is three times the size of Banff National Park. The plan also sets limits for air and surface water quality.
LARP also works to balance the needs of recreation and social development by developing a regional trail system, creating new recreational areas with trails and boat docks and addressing Fort McMurray infrastructure challenges.
While admitting the region does need a plan to balance the differing needs, Shayne Saskiw, Wildrose MLA for Lac La Biche – St. Paul – Two Hills, disagrees with the provincial government taking on a responsibility that should fall to municipal governments.
“We do support long-term, real regional planning where municipalities look at the cumulative effects of industry on the environment and come up with clear guidelines on what the future of our province should be,” he explained. “But this central planning model is, I think, a first in northern America where all the power is put into the hands of cabinet.
“No matter how smart the cabinet ministers and central planners think they are, they can’t properly dictate the use of property on every single piece of private and public property.”
Concerns regarding the land-use framework and LARP plagued the plan during an extensive, three-year process that involved consulting stakeholders and communities across the region. There, citizens came forward to voice concerns ranging from property and aboriginal rights to confusion over the environmental protections that would be put in place.
“Everybody at those meetings was saying these bills should be repealed, it was loud and clear,” Saskiw said. “Instead, they ignored that and steamrolled ahead without making any alterations, so the final LARP plan is virtually unchanged from a year ago. The consultations were really just a sham.”
He said Premier Alison Redford had campaigned on promises to review the property rights bills.
“Instead, she’s basically gone full-steam ahead, so it’s another broken promise. It’s a major concern for landowners,” said Saskiw.
“In part of the plan, they unilaterally rescinded 19 oilsands leases,” he said. “My question is if a government can unilaterally rescind oilsands leases of some of the largest corporations in the world, what chance does a landowner or farmer have when they rescind their property rights and there’s no legal right to compensation and no recourse in the courts?”
“They’ve changed it and changed it to try to accommodate as many people as possible,” said Leskiw, adding, “You’re not going to satisfy everybody.”
She said the government did a good job balancing the needs of industry, environment, economy and recreation and added the plan would likely change in the future to meet future needs.
“I think the government is doing a great job on the first Lower Athabasca Regional Plan. It sets a long-term direction for responsible development in the northeast. I think it’s a good start, supporting environment, economic and social objectives.
“It’s like everything else in government. When the need arises, we review it. Nothing can stay stagnated because you don’t know what it’s going to be like in this area 30 years down the road and I would hope that it’s an ongoing plan. Any good plan changes as the need arises.”