Opinion: Scrapping Bighorn plan imperils North Saskatchewan headwaters

Two O’Clock Ridge near Cline, Alta., is shown in this undated handout photo. Alberta’s new environment minister says he will scrap the previous government’s proposed plan for protected areas in western Alberta. Adam Linnard / THE CANADIAN PRESS

It is disappointing to hear Alberta’s new minister of Environment and Parks say that he will scrap the previous government’s proposed plan for the establishment of new protected areas in the Bighorn region.

The new minister says that more consultation was needed and the Bighorn should be folded back into the larger North Saskatchewan Regional Plan. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how the new government plans to protect these mountains and foothills that provide all of us who live along the North Saskatchewan River with a large majority of our water.

Some have stated that the Bighorn region is already protected, and does not need any changes to its management. This ignores the fact that the majority of land where our water comes from is outside of any form of protected area. The current public land use zones that regulate recreation access in the Bighorn do only that: regulate recreation. The government’s own information states that public land use zones are not protected areas, and that they are established only to manage recreation, not industrial development.

Over the past 40 years, there has been increasing human impact on the forests in the west country as our economic activities expand and our population grows. Every year, more forest is harvested, more access roads and trails are built, more well sites established and more mines developed.

We all understand the value of these developments, but this doesn’t eliminate the significant impacts these activities have on the landscape, and the water that flows through them. In 2014, the government convened a regional advisory council made up of a diverse range of land users to provide recommendations for the Bighorn region as part of a larger land-use plan. Their recommendations, released in 2018, made it clear that the longer government waits to take action on this area, the more difficult and costly it will be.

Water is not only essential to our health and environment, but also to the success of our economy. Water has played a significant role in Canada’s development as a nation, especially in western Canada where much of Canada’s natural resource and agricultural development takes place.

Changes in precipitation and temperature associated with our warming climate, combined with increasing demand for water as our population and industry continue to grow, are likely to make future drought and water shortages more frequent and severe moving forward. Even today, water allocation limits have already been reached or exceeded in the Bow, Oldman and South Saskatchewan River sub-basins in southern Alberta, and ecosystems such as the Peace- Athabasca Delta in northern Alberta are increasingly struggling to cope with significant changes in the flow of water.

The Bighorn is where the 1,800-kilometre long North Saskatchewan River begins, and it provides water for many of our day-to-day activities, from your morning coffee or tea, a beer at the end of the day, or a glass of cool water on a hot August afternoon. It is not just Albertans who rely on this flow of water; most of the water that our prairie neighbours to the east rely on also comes from the Rocky Mountains in Alberta.

Given the importance of this region, I hope that the current government carefully considers all of the work that has been done up to this point in the development of plans for future management of the Bighorn. There have been significant time and resources that have been put towards finding a well-rounded solution for protecting this important region.

If we stick with the status quo, the area will not stay as it is — true protection is needed — and the majority of Albertans want to see protection of the area move forward. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Alberta who says we shouldn’t take care of our environment. Hopefully the government agrees

Christopher Smith is parks co-ordinator with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Northern Alberta Chapter.