Change in government puts Bighorn Parks proposal in limbo

A change in government means a plan to protect the Bighorn area of the Rocky Mountains east of Banff and Jasper National Parks may be in jeopardy.

New Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon was an opponent of the plan when he was in opposition. The new United Conservative Party government has been silent on the issue and did not make Nixon available for comment on Friday

Premier Jason Kenney said in March that a UCP government would consult and come up with a "balanced" plan that people who live in the area would support.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) supported the Bighorn proposal, which would create wildland and provincial parks as well as public recreation and public land use zones in an area currently managed under six public-land-use zones. The new designations would protect the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River and wildlife habitat.

Kecia Kerr, executive director of the CPAWS northern Alberta chapter, said they don't know what will happen under the new UCP government that was sworn in on April 30.

"We're in a bit of a holding pattern to see whether they'll move forward on protection of the area or not," she said.

The proposal was introduced by the former NDP government last November and quickly became embroiled in controversy.

The government was unable to counter misinformation that they planned to ban off-highway vehicles from existing trails, and critics charged the plan would hurt the resource and forestry industries.

Community town halls were cancelled and later rescheduled due to concerns about the safety of Alberta Parks staff.

Former NDP environment minister Shannon Phillips, who was re-elected as the MLA for Lethbridge-West last month, said changes were made to the plan following feedback from the public. She said she wasn't optimistic the new government will do anything with the proposal.

"I don't expect that anything will come of this plan that contained within it protection of nature, ensuring that we have something to hunt and fish for future generations and bringing under control the anarchy that we see out there right now," Phillips said.

Kenney said on Tuesday the NDP bungled the consultation process on the Bighorn plan and alienated stakeholders.

"Our approach will be to seek that balance through consultation as opposed to the NDP path of confrontation," he said.

A clue to what Kenney means by "balance" can be found in the UCP election platform, which promises to subject all major environmental protection proposals to mandatory social-economic impact assessments. In other words, the need to protect the environment must be balanced by economic considerations.

Kerr from CPAWS said she would never suggest that job losses shouldn't be considered. But she said there would be minimal economic impact on the area protected as wildland park.

"There isn't currently forestry interests in there," she said. "There really is not industry in that area."

Kerr said the majority of Albertans want to see the Bighorn area protected. CPAWS released a survey in January suggesting 73 per cent of Albertans supported the previous government's plan