The Alberta NDP’s historic election win on May 5 ended a four-decade dynasty for Progressive Conservatives, ushering in a new political era in this perpetually blue province.
The Twitter-verse hummed with chatter long after the surprise election, with one happy tweeter, SONiC Boy Mike, capturing the glee of many Albertans this way: “The last time I was this excited to see an empire fall there were Ewoks dancing!”
But beyond the surprise and novelty of an orange Alberta, this election offers a new mandate and platform for change at a highly critical time—when shifts in Alberta’s environmental outlook could have implications far beyond the province. That has many conservation groups feeling excited to get down to business with the new government.
As part of its election platform, the NDP promised to strengthen environmental standards to protect Alberta’s land, water and air, and to spearhead new action on climate change. If acted upon, those promises could affect everything from the pace of oil-sands development—including government lobbying for new pipelines to export the volatile product—to more regional efforts for protecting threatened wildlife and natural habitat.
Several conservation groups, including Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), have been advocating for years for improved land protections in Alberta’s headwaters—the mountainous and still-largely wild region that hugs the province’s western border. These landscapes provide critical wildlife corridors for diverse species to move throughout the Yellowstone to Yukon region, and clean water for millions of people downstream.
Y2Y’s efforts took on a new focus when the Government of Alberta announced a land-use planning process for all of the province’s watersheds. Although hashing out land-use plans can be as long and arduous as the uninspiring name suggests, it’s an enormously important undertaking—whatever is decided in these plans will greatly determine the future health of these invaluable ecosystems.
The first plan in the Yellowstone to Yukon region—the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP), finalized in July 2014—encompasses all of southern Alberta, an area stretching from the headwaters of the Bow River to the Saskatchewan border.
“The SSRP plan failed to protect critical areas, which left in doubt its ability to resolve conflicts over land-use planning in the southern part of the province,” says Y2Y’s Interim President Wendy Francis. She identified the Castle Special Place, an important region for wildlife habitat and connectivity north of Waterton Lakes National Park, as one of those “critical areas” that was not sufficiently protected.
Although half the Castle region was protected in the plan, its failure to protect the entire species-rich region has remained a bone of contention for Y2Y and other conservation groups ever since the SSRP was approved. But with the NDP promising to protect the Castle in its election platform, hope remains that an important headwaters region for water and wildlife will now be conserved.
With the next plan in the process now underway—the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (NSRP)—the focus turns to the North Saskatchewan watershed, which stretches from the Icefields in Banff National Park through Edmonton, across the Saskatchewan border and beyond. As with the SSRP, Y2Y and other groups are calling for a final plan that safeguards water sources while preserving critical wildlife habitat and corridors.
“When the public comment period for the NSRP gets underway, Albertans will have an opportunity to advocate for greater flood protection while securing the source of water for millions of people,” says Sarah Cox, Y2Y’s Senior Conservation Program Manager and head of the Alberta Headwaters project.
The North Saskatchewan watershed derives 90 percent of its flow from the Bighorn Wildland, one of the few roadless areas remaining in Alberta’s foothills. The Bighorn is prime habitat for multiple species, including grizzlies, elk and bighorn sheep, and offers a link for wildlife moving between Banff and Jasper National Parks and other wilderness areas.
“Thirty years ago, the Alberta government promised permanent protection for the Bighorn,” says Cox. “The NSRP offers a golden opportunity to fulfil that long-standing promise.”
The fledgling NDP government will be hard pressed to move quickly on all these environmental files—especially an already slow-moving provincial land-use planning process. But Albertans voted for change in this election, which could lead to environmental gains in a province long in need of them.
UPDATE: The NDP came through! After more than 40 years of dedicated efforts from Albertans, as of September, 2015, the entire Castle Special Place has been protected as Wildland and Provincial Park, adding over 1000 km2 to the protected areas network in our beautiful province. Read the announcement here.
To learn more about the importance of protecting the Alberta Headwaters and how you can make your voice heard, visit the Y2Y website.