Alberta opens door to first new protected wilderness in a decade – CPAWS

Edmonton (CPAWS Northern Alberta) –   For the first time in 10 years, the Alberta government is giving the green light to creating new protected wilderness areas in the province — a move being welcomed by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). The region that will be affected is the Athabasca heartland, where oils sands developments threaten one of Alberta’s last strongholds of ecological integrity.

The province’s announcement last week gives the Lower Athabasca Regional Advisory Council, the group charged with land use planning in the area, a mandate to identify at least 20% of the region for conservation. This is good news for Alberta’s threatened Boreal woodland caribou. About 3,000 of the caribou live in Alberta, with about 900 in the Athabasca heartland region. With the province’s blessing, habitat critical to their survival could now be protected.

“The Honourable Ted Morton and the Alberta Cabinet are to be congratulated on this progressive direction to land use planning in Alberta,” says Helene Walsh, on behalf of CPAWS’ Northern Alberta chapter.  “Albertans have consistently called for greater protection of our endangered landscapes – and now we have this significant step towards conserving our northern Boreal.”

CPAWS is advocating at least 40% of the Athabasca heartland be conserved in a network of protected areas that will maximize the chances of species surviving, including threatened Boreal woodland caribou.

Balancing environmental conservation and industrial development

The Lower Athabasca stretches across northeast Alberta and includes the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Fort McMurray and much of the oil sands region. Recent research by the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a multi-stakeholder committee, showed that over 40% of the region could be protected while not affecting development of commercial bitumen. This conclusion clearly strengthened the case for conservation.
“The pace and intensity of oil sands development, oil and gas exploration and logging in the Lower Athabasca Region has been considerable in the last decade,” says Walsh. A 2009 study by Global Forest Watch Canada identified the area as one of the most threatened landscapes in Alberta.

Yet the Athabasca heartland contains most of the last true unprotected wilderness in Alberta. The area is priceless in many ways, explains Walsh. “It’s a tremendous store for carbon and as a wilderness the Athabasca is home to a wonderful diversity of plants and animals including the threatened woodland caribou.”

Planning detailed boundaries for protected areas

The next step towards creating the new wilderness areas will entail detailed mapping and identifying boundaries. This will require input from a number of sources.

“We hope aboriginal people will play a lead role in developing a protection plan for their traditional lands,” says Walsh. She also encourages all concerned Albertans to provide their input into establishing the boundaries over the next months as the plan is finalized.

CPAWS Northern Alberta looks forward to working with the Government of Alberta to become a global leader in Boreal protection.

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