When I was still in school, Premier Peter Lougheed announced that the government was going to proceed with plans for Kananaskis Country.
I didn’t like the idea – I liked the place as it was and felt the plan would simply lead to development and crowding.
I was partly right. But I was mostly wrong, because the future was unfolding rapidly and mere nostalgia could never have saved my favourite places from the juggernaut of change.
The Progressive Conservative government’s 1978 decision was both strategic and proactive. Kananaskis has been a resounding success for conservation values, as well as for outdoor recreation. There are issues, of course, but they pale compared to what we would be dealing with if the government hadn’t moved boldly and decisively to put land use protections and policies in place while there was still time.
This week Premier Rachel Notley built on Lougheed’s conservation legacy by making another bold announcement, setting in motion a process to give central Alberta its own special place: Bighorn Country. There will doubtless be some who oppose new parks, recreation facilities and land protections. But in my opinion this is again the right plan at the right time.
For water security alone, it would be a good decision. The Bighorn region is a critical part of our eastern slopes source water area and protecting that watershed is critical to the future of our communities, economy and ecosystems, especially during a time of growing water demands and rapid climate change. But better land management and new protected areas will be every bit as important for wildlife conservation, fisheries and public recreational opportunities. There are, after all, a million more Albertans than when Kananaskis was established, 40 years ago.
The proposed Bighorn Country is not the kind of decision Albertans would get from a government staring wistfully into the rearview mirror. Instead, it is clearly the product of a strategic-thinking and visionary government willing to take political risks to do the right thing for the lands, waters and people of Alberta.
Those political risks are real, not the least because special interest groups like the Alberta Off Highway Vehicle Association have been promoting trumped-up conspiracy theories to try and generate public outrage and anger ever since the government finally started reining in out-of-control vandalism of our public lands. Self-interested user groups are almost certain to try and derail the plan in favour of their preferred brand of land use anarchy.
The United Conservative Party – which has presented no coherent conservation policy alternatives – will doubtless be eager to feed on that negative energy in their quest for power.
It’s important for Albertans to note that Bighorn Country does not yet exist. The final details are still subject to change. Like Premier Lougheed before her, all Premier Notley really announced today was a proposal and a consultation process. She is, quite rightly, taking the time to get it right.
For this visionary initiative now to become real, it’s now up to Albertans to step up and show that more of us care about conservation and nature than about opportunities to churn up mud and drive wherever we want. Our government needs to hear from us that the risk they took wasn’t a risk at all. They need to hear our ideas for making the Bighorn even better than K-Country.
We’ll get what we are prepared to work for – by actively participating in the consultation opportunity we’ve been given. Here’s where we can do that: https:// talkaep.alberta.ca/bighorn-country.
Kevin Van Tighem is the author of Our Place/Changing the Nature of Alberta and Heart Waters/Sources of the Bow River.