Originally published in the Whitecourt Star
Alberta’s Environment and Parks minister met with local politicians and business leaders Thursday to discuss the government’s long-awaited Caribou Range Plan.
Phillips, who had just completed a helicopter tour of the area, says she wants to work with local governments and the forest industry to develop a plan that strikes a balance between economic growth and protecting the caribou’s natural habitat.
“We have taken the position that the environment and the economy go hand-in-hand and it’s our job to find those balances,” she said prior to the meeting at Eagle River Casino. “We’re open to hearing what the companies and municipalities are saying.”
Present at the meeting were Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak, Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie, Chamber of Commerce President Rand Richards and representatives from Alberta Newsprint Company and Millar Western.
The province has until October to comply with the federal government’s 2002 Species at Risk Act, which lists the boreal woodland caribou population as “threatened.”
The main targets for conservation in Alberta are the Little Smoky and A La Peche ranges, which according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) are 95 per cent disturbed.
The government issued a draft plan last year, which was criticized by the forestry industry as being too restrictive, due to reduced timber quotas.
“We will be filing a range plan according to the federal timelines,” the minister said. “Whether or not the federal government finds that plan to be adequate is another question.”
Phillips emphasized her government’s record of working with concerned industries to protect endangered species, offering the example of the government’s collaboration with oil and gas companies to restore old seismic lines from exploration in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“What those end up being is the fragmentation of the landscape and they’re superhighways for wolves to prey on dwindling caribou populations,” which she said the oil and gas industry took the initiative to fix.
Alison Ronson, executive directors of CPAWS Northern Alberta, says that while it’s important to have stakeholders on board for conservation projects, the government shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
“Almost every stick of timber has been allocated to forestry interests and they have budgeted based on an understanding that they have rights to harvest on the land, so it doesn’t leave much wiggle room,” she said.
There’s already a guideline under the 2012 Federal Recovery Strategy of 65 per cent undisturbed habitat for each range to ensure the caribou population remains self-sustaining.
Government and business ought to keep this target in mind when they sit down at the table, said Ronson.
“There’s been a culture in Alberta for the last 50 years of allowing industry to operate almost unfettered, so the balance is actually very skewed towards industrial development on the landscape,” she said.
“Now we need to reign it in and realize that it’s not sustainable and make some changes to our practices.”