What we heard: A lively North Sask regional planning discussion in Vegreville

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Over the next month, we’ll be in 21 communities across Alberta talking about the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan. The purpose of this first round of consultations is to hear from people who live and work in the region about their vision for the area and their thoughts on the draft Terms of Reference for the plan. You can find the session information for your community here and see the summaries for all communities here.

24 Albertans came out in Vegreville on Wednesday to share their perspectives on the future of the North Saskatchewan region. Attendees included representatives of Travel Alberta, the town of Vegreville, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Counties of Minburn and Kalyna, and the Vegreville Observer

Here’s what we heard:

VISIONS AND OUTCOMES

  • Some attendees think that the vision is thorough and has good content that covers all important points. Others think that it needs to “get to the point” and stop “rambling”, use simpler language. Some think that “this doesn’t read as a vision – more like a mission statement.”
  • The vision tries to please everyone and does not prioritize – this will not work
  • Vision is good but does not include a clear enough plan for action
  • How will the plan address different interests and priorities across the region’s municipalities?
  • Better plan needed for dealing with the region’s population growth over the next 50 years
  • Periodic review is required to make sure plan is still on track during the next 50 years
  • The plan will require trade-offs to be made – if all our top priorities are economic, the environment will suffer
  • There is no such thing as “sustained” growth – the outcome should be “diversified” and “healthy” growth or a “healthy economy”. Likewise, “sustained” environmental quality is also a vague term – need more powerful words.
  • Aboriginal involvement is on the periphery of this vision – no mention of “co-management”. Need to take Aboriginal rights, concerns, knowledge more seriously.
  • More emphasis needed on community needs in general – not just in terms of development
  • Some attendees don’t like the term “built environment” – need a more descriptive term
  • More emphasis needed in the vision on protecting water supply – demand is increasing from both population & industry
  • More focus needed on the health of people in the region
  • Vision should include more focus on regional recreation opportunities & parks development
  • Thoughts about consultation: more up-front information needed before sessions, better awareness of how attendees can be involved in the process, special invitations to key stakeholders (like Aboriginal groups, chambers of commerce) are needed
  • Regional Advisory Council: some attendees were supportive of the council’s role, while others wanted more specifics on the role (who is the council providing with advice?)
Alternative technologies: they're lucrative, but are they also risky?

Alternative technologies: they’re lucrative, but are they also risky?

HEALTHY ECONOMY

  • More focus needed on enhancing agriculture industry – make sure existing content remains in the plan
  • High cost of agricultural land results in farmers removing plant life to increase capacity – but this has a negative impact on the environment
  • Missing focus on education & new technologies – this is a major driver across all sectors of a healthy economy
  • Region has the good fortune of diversity – economic drivers are all inter-related and it’s important to encourage individual strengths of each area
  • Missing mention of secondary industries (fabrication, manufacturing, etc.) – these add value to the region’s primary industries. More focus needed on value-added industries.
  • Need to support oil and gas, but not enough emphasis on unconventional resources like shale development.
  • But – don’t “blindly” develop new resources – need to research and consider trade-offs
  • Don’t subsidize energy development like solar, wind power – “market should take care of itself”
  • Focus on developing alternative products that will cause less damage to the environment
  • Industrial growth is good because it relieves residential tax burdens
  • Need “life cycle analysis” for industrial development – this will allow us to see the full picture
  • Government should regulate environmental impact but should not “intervene” in business
  • Location of industry is important. Development will never cause zero impact – find areas where the impact will be minimized

Thoughts about infrastructure and transportation: Photo of a power line

  • Transportation capacity impacts every economic sector in the region, and the way we develop infrastructure also has major environmental impact. This needs to be addressed more explicitly.
  • Expansion of transmission and transportation lines across the region is fragmenting the land – how will the plan reduce this?
  • More than just transportation infrastructure is needed – electricity also needs to be better in some areas (e.g. St. Paul)
  • Industry should be responsible for building its own roads, if it needs them – not use the roads of municipalities or expect communities to build them

Thoughts about tourism:

  • Tourism is trickier in this region than others because there are fewer geographical features like large lakes, etc. – we need to build cultural tourism instead (the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, rural fairs, etc.)
  • Need to ensure we build tourism opportunities across the entire province – “more to see in Alberta than Banff and mountains”
  • More tourism infrastructure – hotels, campgrounds – needed to support the region’s tourism
  • Tourism projects need more than 25-year leases on land – otherwise it’s difficult to get bank loans
  • Travel Alberta is a resource for tourism – businesses and projects need to utilize it

HEALTHY ECOSYSTEMS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

  • Government is good at holding industry to account – but on-site, self-reported monitoring by industry can be better
  • Province has high regulatory standards and the money, resources to back them up
  • Developing the environmental management frameworks should be a priority – these will undermine the plan if they aren’t done
  • Need a better timeline for action
  • Landscape is changing – removal of plant life and wetlands limits the ability of the landscape to retain water and mitigate flooding
  • Need to address agriculture & rural road dust contributions to air pollution
  • Need to pay attention to not just loss of land but accompanying loss of biodiversity
  • Instead of re-inventing the wheel when it comes to monitoring, use info already collected by organizations like the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, and focus resources monitoring in Aspen Parkland and mountains
  • Brownfields are a major environmental planning problem in urban areas
  • Environmental scientists need to be able to work and speak freely
  • We can’t understand the environmental impacts of things if we don’t establish reliable baseline values – how else will we know how much a given variable has changed?

Thoughts about water and air:

  • Don’t just blame industry for reduction in water bodies, wetlands – development and natural processes are to blame as well
  • Groundwater management framework must be completed and included in plan’s terms of reference
  • Need better monitoring technologies that can capture/measure pollutants directly at the source
  • Better water, sewer infrastructure needed for lake homes and government should not necessarily be subsidizing this
  • Wetland conservation and restoration are proven means of addressing many of the region’s environmental goals. Clear objectives of no further net loss for wetlands and restoration in areas of high loss should be firmly embedded in the plan – important for wildlife habitat as well as watershed management.
  • The new wetland policy represents a great regional plan implementation tool – apply it.
  • Healthy lakes policy is needed to maintain lake tourism opportunities in this region
  • Need to pay attention to the levels of polluants in lakes due to residential development, agriculture, industry etc. and how this impacts the “nutrient load” and water quality
  • Province must work with multiple watershed groups to develop the most effective watershed management approach – no mention of this in the plan
  • Concern about water supply and transfers in a growing region – is framework strong enough to handle these issues?
  • Expand financial incentives for landowners to introduce biodiversity off-sets & incentives for agriculture sector to protect riparian areas. Work with Ducks Unlimited to fund stewardship on private land.
  • More public education needed on the importance of water and good water management
  • Concerns about the potential impact of declining water quality on health, recreation (fishing, etc.) and aquifers
  • Watershed damage by hydraulic fracturing is unacceptable
  • Groundwater resources need to be mapped & protected

PEOPLE-FRIENDLY COMMUNITIES, CULTURE AND RECREATION

  • Need to address municipal building on flood plains
  • Need a broader definition of community – where people congregate, not necessarily defined by city lines. Focus more on building “borderless communities” and building awareness of the impact we have on one another
  • Competing interests of adjoining municipalities in the capital region might require the government to step in and make some decisions
  • Some attendees think the section on Aboriginal consultation needs more content. Support for Aboriginal involvement in the plan, although populations are not as large as in other regions
  • More provincial funding needed for heritage funding and more museums in smaller communities
  • Need to focus on building more sustainable (i.e. denser) communities that need less infrastructure and less maintenance. Walkable communities are also healthier.
  • Communities must not be allowed to get to higher densities than the environment can support
  • Need better joint applications for multiple municipalities working together on projects
  • Need to address compatibility issues between rural and urban activities (e.g. rural dust contributes to air quality issues)
  • Need to address clashes between agricultural industry and rural acreage owners over land use
Local events and attractions - like the Ukrainian Heritage Heritage Village - need adequate support from government. Photo credit.

Local events and attractions – like the Ukrainian Heritage Heritage Village – need adequate support from government. Photo credit.

Thoughts about recreation:

  • Need a long-term plan for build more recreation opportunities for population and find resources to manage them
  • In particular, more campsites are needed – increased population and development has put pressure on existing sites
  • “You can’t regulate integrity, but you can regulate access” – reduce access to sensitive areas. Need to strengthen Crown policies about access and responsible use.
  • More education also needed about responsible recreation, environmental impacts, where people can and cannot go.
  • Rural residents have more space for outdoor pastimes, but communities still need to organize events and need funding to do so. Right now, there’s a sense that funded facilities are all based in urban areas and rural residents have to fend for themselves.
  • Suggestion: explore use of grazing reserves for multiple uses (i.e. recreational uses) to help increase opportunities
  • Land owners need more clarification about liability issues surrounding recreation on private and leased land
  • More trail systems like Iron Horse needed for both specific and mixed uses. Various options: raise funds through user groups, collaborate with existing groups already working on trails, create a management plan for trail system.
  • Recreation users should be held responsible for any damage they cause

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