The second of four public information sessions on Bighorn Country was held at the Polish Hall in Edmonton Saturday afternoon.
“We want it to be very low-key. We’re here to listen to people,” said Rick Blackwood, assistant deputy minister of Environment and Parks, Strategy Division. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re giving people the opportunity to learn more about the proposal and ask questions.”
In November, Alberta’s environment minister announced plans for eight new parks covering 4,000 square kilometres in the Bighorn area, along the eastern edges of Banff and Jasper national parks.
Residents and area officials have raised concerns about how the project might affect oil and gas exploration, the forestry industry and off-road vehicle use.
The issue became contentious and the in-person sessions were replaced by telephone town halls.
Over 100 people attended the Edmonton information session Saturday.
The first meeting was held Friday night in Drayton Valley, with two more to be held in Red Deer and Sundre next week.
“One of the reasons the original sessions were cancelled was because there was some concern about safety,” Blackwood said. “We’ve been able to do a lot of work with our team, find venues and develop processes to ensure safety is addressed. But we were also responding to what we were hearing from stakeholders.
“They wanted to talk to us face to face so we felt it was really important,” he added.
Blackwell said the safety concerns were addressed through increased security and managing the flow of people in and out of the room.
The Bighorn plan is supported by 37 former, top provincial biologists in a letter sent to the premier earlier this month.
“People are very passionate, which is exactly what we expected,” Blackwell said. “This is a piece of real estate and an area of land that people have a lot of vested interest in, either from an industrial perspective or a recreational perspective so it’s really good for us to be able to hear those opinions. We heard a lot of really good comments.
“We’re here to listen, we’re not here to sell anything,” Blackwell said emphasizing the plans for the area are still being tweaked.
“We’re asking people direct questions: if you were to shape it, what would you like to see? Give us specifics,” Blackwell said.
People can also review the proposal and weigh in on the project through an online survey.
The Alberta government said on Jan. 23, that “engagement has already reached more than 30,000 people, as well as municipalities, recreation groups, small businesses and industrial operators.”
“After we’ve been able to give them a much higher degree of understanding — the temperature has gone down a bit,” Blackwell added. “It’s been really helpful having a face to face dialogue.
“The area of the Bighorn has been of intense interest since the ’80s and we have to make sure that we get it right.”
with files from Emily Mertz