The Alberta government is proposing sweeping changes to the way public land and water is managed in the southern part of the province.
The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, released Thursday in Calgary, is designed to balance future population and economic growth with protecting the environment.
"Southern Alberta is diverse, vibrant and prosperous, but its rapid growth has increased pressure on sensitive lands and water resources," said Diana McQueen, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
"The regional plan will advance our conservation efforts, including water supply protection, strengthen communities and enable greater stewardship efforts with landowners, farmers and ranchers, and our many stakeholders, while respecting individual property rights."
The plan proposes 32 new and expanded recreation and conservation areas, including Castle Wildland Provincial Park, Castle Conservation Area and Pekisko Heritage Rangeland.
It also increases the conservation areas in the eastern slopes to 33 per cent from the current 22 per cent. This would add 134,666 hectares of legislatively protected land, an area two and a half times larger than Waterton National Park.
The plan also establishes environmental management frameworks for air and surface water that include strict limits and provides clarity for industry, recreational users and other land users about operating and accessing public lands.
The government is asking people to review the plan and share any ideas or concerns with Alberta Environment. It will hold sessions in 21 communities starting Nov. 5 in Crowsnest Pass and Taber.
Southern Alberta is the most populated part of the province with about 1.6 million people.
Environmental groups call the plan a step towards managing the pressures on water and lands in southern Alberta, but adds it falls short on laws to protect grasslands.
"We welcome the creation of new and expanded Wildland Provincial Parks in the draft regional plan," says Brittany Verbeek of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
"But important pieces such as grassland and wetland protection haven't yet received enough priority to create a better balance between social, economic and healthy ecosystem demands."
The AWA does credit the government plan for recognizing the need to reduce human activity in the headwaters and grizzly habitat in the Castle wilderness area.
Wendy Francis of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative says the plan fails to provide any new protection for Alberta's eastern slopes.
'"Twenty years ago an independent body looked at the entire Castle watershed and recommended that it be fully protected," Francis said.
"Yet this long-awaited plan offers virtually no new protection for the Castle special place."
Francis said the government should have set a policy direction that will change the way forests along the eastern slopes are managed, to focus on the protection of headwaters and prevention of floods.
"Instead, it's business as usual for most of the south Saskatchewan region," she said.
"After four years of consultation and countless millions of dollars, the government has failed to address the issues that gave rise to the need for this plan in the first place."