Worthy of protection: CPAWS looking outside the park
Jasperites have the rare experience of living in one of Alberta’s protected areas, but the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) suggests that there is much more wild Albertan land worthy of setting aside.
Only 12.4 per cent of Alberta’s land base is protected (2.3 per cent of it falls within the Rocky Mountains). Danielle Pendlebury is working to change that. Pendlebury is the conservation coordinator for CPAWS’ Northern Alberta Chapter. For the last year and a half, she has been creating the Conservation Blueprint for Northern Alberta. Covering 560,000 square-kilometres (85 per cent of Alberta), the blueprint sets the stage to establish more protected areas for generations to come. “Setting aside these conservation areas really should have happened 50 to 100 years ago before our wilderness areas were allocated to industry and became fragmented,” Pendlebury explains. Better late than never. Prioritizing which areas in northern Alberta to protect (“getting the biggest conservation bang for our buck,” as Pendlebury says) has been a large part of the Conservation Blueprint. To determine where those areas are, hundreds of data sets—from large landscape features to specific habitat preferences of species at risk—were inputted into a modelling program. Eventually, the computer spit out detailed maps outlining areas that contain the highest conservation value.
Guiding the copious amount of data was the Conservation Blueprint’s goal of obtaining at least 50 per cent protection of each natural subregion in northern Alberta. The goal is significantly higher than the current provincial policy target of five per cent protection, but the benchmark is based on “current scientific consensus,” which deems that at least 50 per cent protected land base is required to contain a full range of biodiversity in the region, support ecosystem processes and functions, and have enough connectivity to allow for the migration of animals. Safeguarding more land from development would have the bonus effect of slowing ongoing extinction rates in Canada, Pendlebury says. “There are over 1,100 sensitive or at-risk species in Alberta alone.” The Conservation Blueprint’s ambitious 50 per cent goal has the potential to conflict with economic interests in the province, namely resource extraction, and particularly in instances where conservation gains would mean economic losses. However, Pendlebury points out that the benefit of using a computer model is its objectivity; it can assess trade-offs between competing demands for land. Moreover, the Conservation Blueprint considered two scenarios that minimized both social and economic costs in its resulting maps, which Pendlebury says “will help create a dialogue.”
The release of the blueprint is timely. The government of Alberta, in recognition of the province’s growth pressures, is in the midst of a land-use planning process called the Land Use Framework (LUF). It aims to responsibly manage provincial land and resources for long-term economic, environmental, and social goals and presents a significant opportunity to create new provincially-protected areas. Based on provincial watershed boundaries, the LUF splits the province into seven areas. Two of these regions have already been completed, and the North Saskatchewan area is currently in the LUF process. This year, CPAWS anticipates that Alberta will begin planning conservation areas in three LUF regions in northwestern Alberta: the Upper Peace, Lower Peace, and Upper Athabasca regions. CPAWS will be sure to make its voice heard. “Now that we have these maps we can work towards drawing actual lines for protected areas during our discussions,” Pendlebury says.
Last spring, CPAWS surveyed Albertans to understand their values and attitudes about recreation and wilderness. Some of the more striking results included the fact that 88 per cent of adult Albertans want more land set aside and left as wilderness where human activity is minimal; and that 98 per cent of all adult Albertans want protection of water to take precedence over industrial development. For Pendlebury, those results demonstrate that the goals of the Conservation Blueprint are supported by Albertans. It also brings home the point that these vulnerable lands can’t wait another 50 years for protection. “Now is the time,” Pendlebury says.