South Saskatchewan Regional Plan: Bad thinking and poor leadership will prove costly for Albertans

After much time and money expended, the Alberta government recently released the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan.  Environmentalists concede there are some good parts of the SSRP.  For example, Kevin Van Tighem, Alberta naturalist and conservation activist, calls creation of the Pekisko Heritage Rangeland “brilliant”.

But the Plan disappoints on many fronts, in particular on the failure to provide for proper watershed management and to protect endangered species in the region.  In the result, Albertans are sure to pay dearly – both in dollar and quality of life terms –for the provincial government’s bad thinking and poor leadership on the future of the South Saskatchewan region.

The overarching criticism is that the provincial government failed to make the tough choices necessary to preserve the ecological integrity of the region.  Instead it has treated the conflicting points of view about what should happen in the area as being of equal worth and thus the job was to “balance” them, presumably so as to keep everyone a little bit happy.  Here’s how Robin Campbell, minister of environment and sustainable resource development, is quoted by the Calgary Herald:  “… the final plan strives to balance the interests of both industry and environmental groups with the desires of citizens who want to recreate in the area.”

The problem is that the government’s responsibility, which Campbell acknowledges, to be “environmental stewards” cannot be satisfied in this half-baked way.  Like pregnancy, ecological integrity is an either/or proposition.  You either have that integrity or you don’t.  As George Monbiot puts it:  “If there is one thing we know about ecosystems, … it’s that you cannot safely disaggregate their functions without destroying the whole thing.  Ecosystems function as coherent holistic systems, in which the different elements depend upon each other.”

If the South Saskatchewan region hadn’t already been overstressed, by logging and off-road vehicle use, for example, the task of planning for its future might not be so demanding.  But the laissez-faire attitude taken in the past means that to protect ecological integrity into the future requires the making of tough choices, such as telling the off-roaders their access has to be reduced to meet conservation and water management goals.  This would have taken both a clear analysis of what is at stake in the region (good thinking) and also the courage to say no (good leadership).

We got neither.  As Gord Petersen of the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition says, “government has refused to stand up to industry and motorized recreation groups.”

This bad thinking and failure of leadership will cost Albertans big time.  It’s difficult to quantify the loss of species, such as bull trout and grizzly bear, in dollars.  It’s not only difficult but also foolish to assess in money terms what is lost when the tranquility we seek in pristine wilderness is destroyed by the noise and disruption of motorized vehicles nearby.

But the costs that attend the destruction of the water-absorptive elements of this region are more readily measured:  by contributing to the likelihood of further, destructive flooding in southwest Alberta, the failures of the SSRP will cost Albertans a lot of money.

At $ 6 billion and still counting, the 2013 Alberta flood was the most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history.  In 2014 southwest Alberta flooded again, as it has several times over the last 20 years.  The climate has changed, and to overlook the seriousness of the flooding hazard in southwest Alberta is a fatal weakness in the SSRP.

There is no excuse: the provincial government was warned of the SSRP’s deficiencies.  Many critical assessments of the Plan were submitted before the final draft was prepared.  For example, James Early of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Friends of the Kananaskis wrote:  “Treed areas are able to absorb 65% more rain water than bare or grass-covered land. The SSRP references the priority of headwater integrity, but … continues to allow clear-cut logging and fails to protect any more than the peaks of our mountains above timberlines.  … [G]reater protection of the slopes and valleys through which these waters run is also key to ensuring clean water for all, and would also greatly assist in flood prevention and mitigation.”

Indeed, in some important ways, the final SSRP is worse than was the draft.  In Van Tighem’s view, it is “most unfortunate that they backed away from the draft’s prohibition of motorized use in wetlands and riparian areas.”

Bad thinking and poor leadership are no small potatoes.  Besides being an insult to the intelligence of Albertans and a dereliction of government’s duty, they have already cost Albertans a lot of money and are almost assuredly going to cost us a lot more.

Albertans need a government that understands ecological integrity is not a luxury we can take or leave – it’s an economic, as well as a moral, imperative.  Alberta’s future can be bright, but only if we change political direction.

Janet Keeping is leader of the Alberta Green Party.

A somewhat edited version of this blog was posted by Troy Media at


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