The cover of the 6 February 1995 issue of Alberta Report read "Special Places Sell Out - Klein, big oil and the green lobby forge ahead with an ecoprotection scheme that terrifies cattlemen, loggers and miners". Inside the magazine detailed how "green protectionism had run amok" and how "big oil and the ecolobby" had pushed the Premier to "fence off Alberta's Special Places".
On March 28, the Alberta Government released its Special Places 2000 policy following up on a plan first drawn up in 1992. The new policy initially sets aside 29 areas as candidates for special protection, but doesn't rule out development such as mining, forestry, grazing, off-road vehicles and oil and gas activity. Earlier the plan had recommended that development be excluded from these lands.
Reflecting on this change from preservation to development, the Honourable Ty Lund, Minister of Environmental Protection said, "let's not kid ourselves, a strong economy will help us preserve our truly special places".
The plan met with condemnation from Alberta environmental groups. "It's a recipe for conflict" stated Dawn Mitchell, coordinator of the Alberta Endangered Spaces program of World Wildlife Fund Canada. The recipe she was referring to is the Clayquot Sound style of confrontation which has paralyzed B.C.' s logging industry.
What is so special about Alberta's places and how has this program caused so much confrontation between government, industry and environmental groups?
It was WWF that first promoted the idea of setting aside portions of the Canadian landscape in 1989. Launched as the Endangered Spaces program, it challenged federal and provincial governments to create a network of protected areas before the year 2000. It was felt that this was the turning point beyond which creation of a protected area system would be too late.
In November 1992, a draft document titled "Special Places 2000: Alberta's Natural Heritage" was tabled in Quebec at the Tri-Council Meeting of federal and provincial ministers responsible for environment, parks and wildlife. As Alberta's response to the implementation of WWF's Endangered Spaces program, Special Places is based on a hierarchical classification scheme of the province's six natural regions and 20 subregions. Currently many of these natural regions are under-represented. Special Places aims to provide the science, policy and process by which these gaps in the protected system will be filled. A scientific and systematic system based on natural features such as geology, landform, soils, hydrology, climate and wildlife will be used to establish a system of protected areas that will ensure the full diversity of Alberta's landscapes.
A series of public meetings followed through the spring and summer of 1993 to solicit the views of Albertans. A report was finally submitted by the Public Advisory Committee to cabinet in April 1994.
Things then got stuck for a year. In March 1995, the Minister of Environmental Protection released the Special Places 2000 Policy and Implementation plan. While similar to the original draft document in some respects, the implementation plan differs substantially in that tourism and economic development is now allowed in Special Places. The document echoes the comments of Ty Lund when as a backbencher commenting on Special Places in April 1994 he remarked, ''I'd like to know how on earth sterilizing large tracts of land could possibly add to economic development".
After all is said and done, Alberta is the only province which has yet to commit to a system of protected areas free from development. This is despite public opinion polls which state that over 93% of Albertans value protected areas and do not wish to see further losses to the environment.
It was Special Places, or the lack of it, that was partially responsible for the decision of the ERCB last year to deny Amoco permission to drill in the Whaleback area southwest of Calgary. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) had previously lobbied in favor of establishment of Special Places. CAPP felt that having a clearly understood set of rules for protection of some areas and development of others was needed. It was felt this was the only way by which the oil industry could be guaranteed security to proceed with oil and gas projects without confrontations such as Prairie Bluff where environmentalists laid down in front of bulldozers.
And what if we don't set aside protected areas that are free from development? Are we any worse off? We only have to look to Europe and south to the United States to see how the ravages of human development have resulted in a homogenous landscape where wilderness is all but a memory. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that wilderness is a Celtic word meaning self willed land indicating that the setting aside of protected areas necessitates human intervention.
So where does the current Special Places Policy leave us? We do know that time and patience may be running out for Alberta's conservation community. The mutual dialogue that has been established between industry and environmental advocates through processes such as the Eastern Slopes Energy and Environment Committee may be in jeopardy. Is Alberta's oil and gas industry vulnerable to the type of conflicts we have witnessed in British Columbia? We may well soon see confrontation replace consultation. And where does that leave the oil and gas industry? Just as uncertain as before of the rules on where and where not to drill. And what about the Alberta government? Perhaps a little richer. It is no secret that the Alberta government is making huge sums of money selling off the environment to potential oil and gas developments and paying down the deficit. In their rush to cut the environment for the sake of economic gain, the government is perhaps forsaking the ecological future of Alberta while unsettling the present economic environment.
Clearly both environmental and industry interests want a clear set of rules as to where development can and cannot take place. The new Special Places 2000 policy does not come close to achieving this goal. Instead its watered down commitment to protection only serves to muddy the water further and may in fact lead to a network of "Special Pieces" rather than a lasting representation of the Alberta landscape.