Graphic of the new Bighorn Country. Photo submitted

Bighorn Country proposal sparks debate among Albertans

MLA Jason Nixon is speaking out against lack of public consultation in regard to the proposal

Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Jason Nixon is speaking out against the process being used by the NDP in regard to the Bighorn Country proposal.

Recently the NDP government has decided to cancel in-person consultations that would allow communities to ask questions about the proposal and give input.

Nixon is unimpressed with the lack of transparency and the exclusion of communities who will be impacted by the Bighorn proposal.

“I have a lot of unanswered questions about the proposal and so do lots of people that I represent,” said Nixon in a phone interview. “What I’m having a major problem with at the moment is, first off, the government refused to even have any public meetings.”

Nixon added they had to” force and push” the NDP Government to have the meetings and once they started to have them the government cancels leaving a “huge amount of people” unable to give their feedback and have their questions answered.

“Until they do that I don’t know how anybody can actually have a position on the proposal,” said Nixon.

According to a poll designed, conducted and administered by Edmonton marketing and social research firm Advanis in December, 73 per cent of Albertans support the Government of Alberta’s proposal to protect Bighorn Country.

Sixteen per cent opposed and 11 per cent said they neither oppose nor support.

The survey was commissioned by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and was distributed to 1,077 randomly selected respondents.

Chris Smith, Parks Coordinator with CPAWS Northern Alberta, says there are many important environmental values in the Bighorn region, with one of the biggest being the provision of water quantity and quality.

“About 88 per cent of Edmonton’s drinking water comes from the Bighorn area that this proposal covers and this connection through the North Saskatchewan River also feeds a large portion of Saskatchewan and further into Manitoba,” said Smith.

Smith explains by ensuring the area retains landscape cover it allows for resiliency in the face of a changing climate and potential drought periods resulting in more consistent water flow throughout the drier months.

Nixon says there are already processes in place to conserve the area, adding most of the area is a public land use zone designated to conservation efforts.

“It’s an important area that needs to be conserved for use of our current generation and for future generations, everybody already agrees on that,” said Nixon, but according to Smith the conservation efforts Nixon is referring to is being phased out in Alberta.

The Eastern Slopes Policy was put in place in 1984 and through the policy there is conservation zones and restrictions on development.

“There’s no real good mechanisms to replace it outside of using the existing protected area legislation,” explained Smith. “At the same time that policy is unfortunately just that, it’s a policy, it’s a recommendation. There’s very little legally binding measures that anybody really has to follow it and that’s our concern.”

The Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society wants to see it put into legislation where it has much more rigorous protection going into the future.

Smith says the biggest benefit to come from the proposal is actually having a proper management framework since right now there is not any one authority in charge of the Bighorn, there is no dedicated funding source and there is no dedicated employees.

“That’s one of the things that a lot of people have been saying is that they want more enforcement of the existing laws and it’s hard to do that when you don’t have a system in place to fund those officers through public lands,” commented Smith, adding parks offer a much more rigorous system where there is notable funding and systems in place.

Nixon says the question is long term whether or not to use provincial parks, land use zones or different types of mechanisms.

“You can’t determine that unless you work with communities to figure out what’s best to manage the area,” Nixon said, adding they need questions answered on where the money will come from long term and what the proposal means for pre-existing industries like oil and gas and the forestry sector.

Dave Klepacki, a 30-year resident of Bragg Creek, which is on the border of Kananaskis Country, agrees the government should be consulting with communities, but says there is also a whole beneficial side to the proposal “that shouldn’t get caught up in the politics.”

Klepacki has seen first-hand the kind of positive impact being a “trail head community” of a provincial park can have through the tourism industry.

“There’s a lot of good, at least that’s what we’re experiencing out of Kananaskis,” said the Bragg Creek resident. “I just think 10 years from now there can be a really significant change and growth in communities like Rocky Mountain House and Sundre and all the communities along the foothills if more was done to integrate and develop the potential of the tourist industry along a new provincial park.”

Nixon also said he needs answers to what the Bighorn means for several of the different tourism businesses in the region and how the government is going to work with local municipalities to manage things like emergency services and roads.

“The idea that the government is just staying in Edmonton and not talking to a community and answering questions is inappropriate [and] not how something like this is done,” explained Nixon.

Nixon has reached out to Environment Minister Shannon Phillips, both personally and publicly to get a public process going.

READ MORE: OPINION: MLAs Ron Orr and Jason Nixon comment on Bighorn Country consultations

“We will not accept a flawed consultation,” added Nixon.

As of the morning of Jan. 9 Phillips says some of the consultation events will be rescheduled in result to the backlash sprung from the cancellations.

Smith recommends people research the proposal and come to their own decision on it.

“A lot of misinformation has been put out around there and it’s part of the reason so many people are potentially against it… so look through the plan and come to your own conclusions about it,” said Smith.

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