File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Two O’Clock Ridge near Cline River. A group of 37 retired provincial biologists are pleading with the Alberta government to stick with its conservation plans for a vast chunk of west-central Alberta despite what they call misinformation from an Opposition MLA.

Biologists pen letter over Alberta MLA’s ‘misinformation’ on conservation plans

EDMONTON — More than three dozen former top provincial biologists are asking the Alberta government to stick with conservation efforts in a vast area of west-central Alberta despite what they call misinformation from an Opposition member of the legislature.

“We were very concerned about the misinformation, the inflamed rhetoric and the lack of a long-term vision that perspective provides for the Bighorn,” said Lorne Fitch, a longtime fisheries biologist and University of Calgary professor who is one 37 signatories to the open letter to Premier Rachel Notley and Environment Minister Shannon Phillips.

In November, the New Democrats announced eight new parks covering 4,000 square kilometres along the eastern edges of Banff and Jasper national parks in the so-called Bighorn Country.

It features mountains, foothills, forests, lakes, streams and the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River that more than a million Alberta residents depend on for drinking water. The area has been considered for protection since the 1980s and its core remains relatively free of energy, forestry and farming.

The plan calls for a variety of permitted activities and offers $40 million over five years for campsites and other infrastructure. Off-highway vehicles, horse packing and hunting would continue, although with new restrictions.

Grazing leases would continue. No existing trails would be closed.

But Jason Nixon, the United Conservative Party member for the area, said the New Democrats sidelined an ongoing consultation process to ram the plan through before an expected spring election.

“We can go back to the regional planning process, which was working great,” he said. “There’s no need to rush this through before the election.”

That process has recommended conservation areas very similar to the proposed Bighorn parks, areas that were first outlined as long ago as 1988.

The plan remains open for public comment until the end of January. Fourteen public and invitation-only information sessions were scheduled in five communities between December and Jan. 31. Further consultation is planned through the spring.

Still, Nixon said many people remain uncertain about the plan’s impact on industry and land use and suggested it could take another year to gather input. He said the government has been overly reliant on information from environmental groups and has only recently opened up the process.

“There are many people who have concerns,” he said.

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