Latest Lower Athabasca plan released to public
While the government says the Lower Athabasca regional draft plan is representative of competing interests, some special interest groups say it leaves a lot to be desired.
The plan was released for public comment Monday. This land-use blueprint covers an estimated 93,212 square kilometres of northeast Alberta, an area that includes most of the province's oilsands, large tracts of boreal forest and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo including Fort McMurray, Lac La Biche, Cold Lake and Bonnyville. The first draft of the regional plan was released in April for feedback.
Minister of Sustainable Resource Development Mel Knight referred to the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan as an extremely important piece of business for Albertans. He added that a tremendous amount of work over three years went into the development of LARP including two years of consultation in three phases. More than 10,000 Albertans contributed and the input of those Albertans helped shape this plan.
"What we think that this plan achieves is a balance, a balance between the environment, the development and the community aspect of living and working in Alberta. This plan will include science-based limits that protect air, land and water and our biodiversity."
Other highlights include having about two million hectares — three times the size of Banff National Park — set aside for conservation in northeastern Alberta, new frameworks for cumulative effects management and a much stronger commitment to aboriginal consultation.
"We have looked at different ways to manage oilsands reclamation. We've looked at opportunities for new parks, for recreation areas, for tourism. We've looked at First Nations' requirements and historical and cultural sites and we will respect the existing current oil and gas development in the area and take a look at what is recoverable from the point of view of oilsands and be again mindful of the fact that we need to maintain a strong economy n the province of Alberta."
New strategies to plan for urban development around Fort McMurray in the RMWB, which Knight called extremely important and an important piece of this planning, is also outlined in the plan.
There is a five-year review period and 10 year renewal to all plans.
Knight admitted that he expects both positive and negative comments on LARP which Albertans can view at www.landuse.alberta.ca.
He noted that the competing land-use interests are becoming more intense, an issue further compounded by population growth numbers which put Alberta as home to five million people by in the 2025 to 2030 period.
A statement released Tuesday by Sierra Club Prairie and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says previous draft's had both groups unanimously agreeing that LARP left loopholes allowing for exemptions to environmental standards and led to a further degradation of constitutionally protected treaty rights. This recent draft is an insult to both groups as it did little to incorporate previous recommendations largely ignoring growing concerns to protect critical habitat of caribou and vital Indigenous traditional territories and rights.
While First Nation groups are still trying to unravel how this new draft will impact their rights and territories, John Rigney, who works for the ACFN, said sections on aboriginal input on pages 33 and 63 highlights that the government of Alberta has chosen to be wilfully blind to the input of First Nation governments as well as to many court rulings on First Nation rights
"The government seems to be fully prepared to trample the aboriginal people of the north as it has done for so long in the agricultural regions of the province," said Rigney. "This new draft of the LARP trumpets Alberta's uninformed disregard for Treaty 8 and the Constitution for the world to see, as well as its cavalier attitude toward environmental protection."
Eriel Deranger, interim executive director of Sierra Club Prairie added that despite major efforts by both local citizens and First Nations to put forward recommendations for a land use plan that will benefit both the environment and the economy, "we see the Government of Alberta disregard these requests and ignorantly turn pristine Boreal ecosystems into dollar signs for corporations."
Those loopholes were also criticized by Jennifer Grant of the Pembina Institute. She said the government's efforts to accommodate industry interests are apparent in this version of LARP with the adjustment of some protected areas, and new loopholes introduced last week that allow further exemptions to environmental standards.
"In this latest draft of the plan, the Alberta government has missed the opportunity to improve on the weaknesses we identified in the previous version, including adequate protection for caribou habitat, allowing logging in some conservation areas, and the lack of limits on water withdrawals from the Athabasca during low-flow periods."
Pembina has recommended the draft be reviewed by an independent group of scientists and overhauled to ensure the protection of the regional environment.
"It now appears these recommendations have been ignored," said Grant.
Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada also commented on any slant to protect the oilsands industry saying LARP is a plan for how oilsands companies can destroy this ecosystem to get at the bitumen underneath it.
"This plan looks like it was designed by industry: logging and oil and gas development in protected areas and the government's plan to save caribou is to kill wolves rather than protect habitat," he added.