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South Foothills study reveals gradual decline in environment

There is a gradual decline occurring in the environmental health of the South Foothills, an area that includes the western half of the MD of Willow Creek.
That is one of the conclusions of the third phase of the South Foothills Study.
Alan Gardner, author of the study, appeared as a delegation at MD of Willow Creek council’s July 8 meeting.
The study began in 2005, a product of members of the ranching community who saw the need for better land use planning.
Brad Stelfox was hired to do the initial study, which was dubbed the “Business as usual” case study.
The MD of Willow Creek provided funding for the project and seven presentations were done around southern Alberta.
The study is intended to examine whether beneficial management practices can halt or reverse the decline in environmental health identified in the initial study.
Gardner explained the boundaries of the study are the U.S. and B.C. borders, Highway 2, and encompassing Calgary and the Bow River basin.
This area is the same as the west side of the area covered by the South Saskatchewan River land-use management plan.
Gardner noted the value of this report is in excess of $250,000.
Gardner then went on to Phase 3 of the report.
Titled “A future worth protecting” the report is based on the science and computer modelling of Stelfox.
There was a wide range of participants including land owners, municipal and provincial government representatives, ranchers and farmers, wildlife groups, off-road and recreational groups.
The process was co-ordinated with the province’s land use framework, and was done as an adjunct of the framework.
The conclusions are telling.
The long-term trend for environmental health is downward.
The impact of beneficial management practices will make a short-term difference but not stop or slow down that decline.
There will be increased conflicts over water and a loss of native grassland.
The grizzly bear population, which is a proxy for overall environmental health, will also continue to decline.
There will be a reduction in ecosystem services which will increase costs to society.
Gardner cited the example of Nanton spring water. Once, it was bottled and sold, and now Nanton has had to upgrade its water treatment plant.
In order to stabilize the foothills, thresholds have to be put in place.
The Alberta Land Stewardship Act provides a variety of tools to manage land use as well. However, the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan does not effectively address the challenges.
Gardner concluded by noting the power to create beneficial outcomes varies inversely with the degree of crisis.
Since there is no immediate crisis, the trend downward can be reversed with changes.
One suggestion the report makes is dominant land use. Essentially that means defining the highest and best use for each geographical area. Making that idea work requires defining the area and measuring the cumulative effects of development.
Gardner said this report is not just for today, but will be valid five to 10 years from now.
“We don’t have a crisis today, but don’t ignore it,” Gardner said, because that could change down the road. “We could have a crisis — especially with water.”

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