Dollars, politics force officials to ignore Alberta wetlands: study

Dollars, politics force officials to ignore Alberta wetlands: study by The Canadian Press, September 30, 2012
If Shari Clare noticed anything during five years as a private-sector environmental consultant in Alberta it was the “void between what regulations say and what happens on the ground.” That void became the subject of her thesis, which is soon to be published in the journal Society and Natural Resources. Two years of research at the University of Alberta gave her what she calls a scientifically credible analysis of “the subtle, hidden power that everyone in Alberta knows about but nobody talks about.” Alberta Environment routinely and increasingly disregards its own guidelines on protecting and conserving wetlands, she concludes. She uses 34 lengthy interviews with everyone from executive-level bureaucrats to industry representatives to describe a government culture where well-intentioned rules often come second to politics and dollars.

“You need to have some strength and willingness on the regulator’s side to be able to say ‘no,’ ” she quotes one government employee as saying. “I’m not sure that saying ‘no’ is in the provincial vocabulary.” 

Wetlands filter runoff, buffer floods and provide highly biodiverse habitat, so developers must get provincial approval before disturbing them. “Alberta Environment’s priority is to avoid having land development impact wetland area whenever possible,” provincial guidelines say. … Consideration for not disturbing the wet areas in the first place appeared to be rare. Said one environmental consultant interviewed in the study: “I skip to (compensation) right away, just because I’ve never encountered somebody saying, ‘No, don’t touch this wetland.”‘

Clare’s paper suggests guidelines are being ignored because it would take too long to find replacement wetlands that fit the bill. “The lack of compensation sites was identified in interviews as being a major impediment to the ability of applicants to ‘get on with their development,”‘ she writes.

“Many government regulators feel that they are responsible for ensuring reasonableness and fairness for proponents, rather than apply the guidelines as written. By bartering less environmentally demanding wetland compensation requirements, regulators minimize political costs for government and financial costs for proponents.”

Ducks Unlimited is largely responsible for taking compensation payments, locating suitable sites, negotiating with landowners and doing the work.  [Emphasis added]

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