Alberta opens door to wilderness conservation in oilsands

EDMONTON — The Alberta government has announced it wants to more than triple the amount of protected land in the controversial northeast of the province, where it has suffered years of international scorn for sacrificing wilderness values to oilsands development.

EDMONTON — The Alberta government has announced it wants to more than triple the amount of protected land in the controversial northeast of the province, where it has suffered years of international scorn for sacrificing wilderness values to oilsands development.

In terms of reference given to the body that oversees land management in the area, the provincial cabinet has instructed the Lower Athabasca Regional Advisory Council to find ways to protect at least 20 per cent of its region.

“The council should look at the potential of 20 per cent or greater, if that’s possible, of conservation areas for that part of the province,” said Dave Ealey of the province’s Department of Sustainable Resource Development.

“We’re trying to ensure that we have a good, solid percentage of the boreal forest secure as a result of this process.”

Only about six per cent of the area’s vast tracts of old-growth boreal forest, muskeg, rivers and lakes are currently protected.

The key selection criteria for areas to be conserved will be those with little industrial activity, that support traditional aboriginal use and that represent typical landforms, plants and animals. The protected areas are to be between 4,000 and 5,000 square kilometres and are to be connected to each other.

Environmentalists were delighted at the news.

“It’s a good indicator for progress on the conservation front in terms of wildlife and wilderness and healthy forests,” said Helene Walsh of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

“It has all the different kinds of habitats and ecosystems left in intact patches. We’ve pretty much put roads everywhere in Alberta but in this particular part those intactness values are still there.”

“It’s going to be helpful for all the wildlife.”

Alberta has been harshly criticized for years over the pace and breadth of development in the region. A few years ago, the province even proposed turning the entire region over to industry.

That plan was quickly withdrawn. But film crews and reporters from across Europe and the U.S. documenting the environmental cost of oilsands development have become a common site in the province.

Walsh suggests the latest move is at least partly a reaction to that criticism.

“This is kind of in response to criticism internationally now of unsustainable development with respect to the tar sands,” she said. “Protecting some of that forest is a good way to counter that.”

Ealey said the council will be asked to start drawing lines on maps to determine the location and extent of the protected areas. He said a draft should be complete by early next year, with the final report tabled by the middle of 2010.

Walsh said that process will have to be watched closely.

“How this actually plays out is problematic and nobody really knows how that’s going to happen.”

But for now, she said, she’s pleased that the caribou and songbirds increasingly endangered by diminishing habitat may get a break.

“It’s great news.”

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