Regional plan protects Pekisko grasslands

Province: South Saskatchewn Regional Plan unveiled

By: Don Patterson

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014 12:08 pm

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The provincial government is extending protection to tens of thousands of hectares of undisturbed native grasslands in the foothills under a new plan intended to guide future growth in southern Alberta.

The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, unveiled by the Province last week which comes into effect on Sept. 1, outlines strategies for energy development, farming, ranching, tourism and urban development.

It will also see the expansion and creation of several provincial parks and new conservation areas, including the 34,356 hectare Pekisko Heritage Rangeland southwest of Longview.

The Pekisko plan is something ranchers in the area have been wanting for more than a daecade.

Rancher Francis Gardner said the creation of the Pekisko Heritage Rangeland is a good step to protect the remaining foothills grasslands in the Pekisko area and will support ranchers whose herds gaze on the land.

“We’re very satisfied with what this does for the land and hence I think it will help ranching units to survive,” he said.

Gardner is a member of the Pekisko Group, which formed over a decade ago to lobby for more protection of land along the foothills.

He said the area is critically important as the headwaters for much of southern Alberta.

“There is a fundamental value in production of water that comes off these Pekisko Rangelands every year,” he said.

The area also has significant value for a range of other areas, such as wildlife protection, tourism and recreation, hunters and even landscape views, he added.

As the regional plan is implemented this fall, the provincial government will draw up a management plan for the new Pekisko rangeland.

Scott Milligan, executive director of the Land Use Framework, regional planning branch, said the plan will look at initiatives and strategies to maintain the area’s native fescue grassland, including things like grazing practices and access points for motor vehicles. He said there won’t be any changes to the practices ranchers in the area already follow as part of their grazing leases and existing leases will remain in place.

However, there will be opportunities for ranchers with a good record of managing the land to get grazing leases for as long as 30 years.

“To get that benefit, above average performance of range health would be needed. You need to perform a little above average to get the 30 years,” he said.

In addition to the Pekisko rangeland, the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan will also see three provincial parks in the foothills area grow. The Bluerock Wildland Provincial Park will be expanded by 453 hectares, Sheep River Provincial Park will grow by 267 hectares and Elbow Valley Provincial Park by 333 hectares.

While the provincial government is taking steps to conserve more land with the regional plan, it is also giving municipalities direction for how it wants future development to occur.

The plan is not legally binding on towns and cities, but they will need to bring their municipal planning documents in line with the regional plan. It lists a number of strategies and approaches for how future development should occur, such as higher densities, slowing the rate of building on undeveloped land and looking for opportunities in the future to establish multi-use corridors for transportation, pipelines and utilities. The plan discourages further fragmentation of agricultural land.

Neal Watson, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development spokesperson, said the provincial government recognizes municipalities have a key role to play under the plan and they will continue to have autonomy over their own land use decisions. However, they will need to align with the goals of the regional plan.

“Municipalities retain that ability to, for instance, approve subdivisions… but those plans and initiative must be consistent with the regional plan,” said Watson.

Okotoks Mayor Bill Robertson said most urban municipalities are already doing much of what is called for under the regional plan.

While Okotoks has a strong record of sustainable development practices, he said future councils could choose to change course. Robertson said the regional plan will ensure a strong set of rules for municipalities to follow.

“That’s the reason I’ve supported the regional plan, the Calgary Metropolitan Plan, it lays out a plan,” he said.

The opposition Wildrose Party has said the regional plan still needs work to ensure it protects property rights, while meeting economic and environmental targets.

Livingstone Macleod MLA Pat Stier said it’s a large, complex document and the party will need to take time to review it. He said the party is concerned with the top down, “central planning” approach the PC government is taking with regional plans.

Stier said there were concerns among municipalities they would lose autonomy with the plan.

He said the government appears to be trying to assuage those concerns by softening the language in the plan to say it won’t have any binding legal effect. However, Stier noted municipalities will still need to rewrite their own development plans and other documents to ensure they reflect the new regional plan.

“You can’t take one phrasing without reading the other… I believe it is still binding,” he said.


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