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Workbook deserves response it got

The Land Use Framework has taken a beating lately locally. One of the biggest complaints raised is about the consultation process, which was flawed at best, and a disaster at worst.

The Land Use Framework has taken a beating lately locally. One of the biggest complaints raised is about the consultation process, which was flawed at best, and a disaster at worst. The timing, advertising, and content of the draft consultation received criticism, and a lot of that criticism was directed toward the Working Towards the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan Workbook.

I decided to see for myself what the fuss was all about by filling out the Workbook “to share your views,” even though this part of the consultation process closed in October.

The workbook got off to a bad start with a question on how strongly I agree with the proposed vision for the Lower Athabasca Region - which it defined as an “exceptional mosaic,” a “vibrant, dynamic region that is a major driver of the Canadian economy,” and full of “strong, healthy, prosperous and safe communities.”

What was no doubt intended to be an elegant tribute to the people of the region comes out like a smorgasbord of rhetoric. Words like “exceptional mosaic” hardly carry any weight, except weighty abstraction. “Safe communities,” I suppose it means universally safe all the time for everyone? In the real world we know from day-to-day occurrences that that safety is contingent on the behavior and actions of individuals and cannot be used to describe whole communities.

Another unfavourable sign is the multiple choice questionnaire style of the workbook. One is right to be suspicious of a format that leads someone to pick one of a few approved options – when perhaps none describe one's opinion. On the positive side, space is provided for comments.

The workbook goes on to ask how strongly I agree or disagree with its classification system: agriculture, conservation, mixed-use resources, population centres, and recreation and tourism - all of which are laid out in a nifty chart identifying the Advisory Council's priority and "other" uses.

It's easy to see how locals became uneasy about the conservation classification - which includes: Aboriginal and non-aboriginal traditional uses, "limited primitive recreation and tourism," and limited industrial activity. As no specifics are provided, one is left guessing how changes to current land uses could affect them.

Then we're asked a completely meaningless question, whether the classification system represents the values of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan vision - as if at this point it's up to the readers to tell the writers they've contradicted themselves.

In newspapers, we have editors for that. I recommend the province hire one.

By question six I considered giving up. The question has me flipping back two pages to see if I consider the priority uses of each land classification too broad, appropriate, or too narrow, as if after seeing the chart I'm now an expert making an informed decision.

I find out later that the Nouvelle's Brandon MacLeod didn't make it much further, quitting like many others halfway. But knowing I need some column fodder, (and the Workbook being a shining example of the government missing the point), I continue.

A persistent problem throughout the Workbook is its academic and vague language. I find myself struggling with jargon like "intensive, comprehensive forest management," "land disturbance" (is this a polite way of saying strip mining?), and "robust environmental management frameworks.” The Advisory Council should have included a glossary to try to define these and other phrases.

The Workbook's predecessor, Understanding Land Use in Alberta, Minister Morton's project, included a glossary when it came out in April, 2007. It defined common terms like “natural gas,” “oil sands,” and “biodiversity.” Somewhere between then and the Workbook in August 2010 the rhetorical ante got amped up to the point where the Council felt no need speak to an average person's intellect. Instead, indulgent in wordy excesses, the Workbook hinders, not helps, the discussion on land use.

However, the draft is not without merit. It proposes a land disturbance threshold - a limit for the amount of land in mixed-use areas that could be disturbed at one time by oilsands development. Question 10 asks how strongly I agree with the threshold idea. Sure, sounds like a good idea. But it fails to ask what I think that threshold should be - depriving the question of any substance. Nor does it say that the threshold level has already been identified at 15 per cent in the Advisory Council's Advice to the Government Regarding a Vision for the Lower Athabasca Region. I get the feeling the Workbook attempted to churn out approval.

To be fair the Workbook introduction recommends reviewing “ALL” the advice from the Council. By excluding information from the Workbook it makes the participant's job of deciphering jargon even harder.

Advice also recommends reclaiming and "re-purposing" disturbed lands. It's easy to see how one might strongly agree with new uses for a region far away from here, and at the same time strongly disagree with "new uses" close by. Without specifics, this question is also useless.

Trying to manage lands in an environmentally and economically sound manner that reflects the region's heritage is a worthy effort. If the region grows as fast as the Council predicts, to 303,000 by 2045, land use planning will be incredibly important. Too bad the government chose to go about consultation all wrong.

From consultation during times farmers were busy in the fields, to failing to clarify that Lower Athabasca indeed was meant to refer to this region, I “strongly disagree” with the tone and implications of the Workbook. Hopefully northeast Albertans will continue to share their contempt widely and strongly so this monstrosity does not migrate in the same awkward fashion throughout the rest of the province.

Industry is required to provide the public with a plain-language proposal to develop resources; why shouldn't the government? I suspect a common language Workbook wasn't even in the cards. Relying on a vague and academic style, this half-hearted attempt generated the response it deserved.

Have I missed the mark – or hit it straight on? Let me know if you agree or disagree: