Head of Land Use Planning Is on the “Front Line” of Resource Protection

Anna Curtis heads up the Historic Resource Management Branch’s Land Use Planning Section. If proposed development projects in the province could potentially impact historic resources, the Historical Resources Act allows the Minister of Alberta Culture to require the project proponent to perform studies or other work before their projects can proceed. “What we do is coordinate [the regulatory approval process],” Anna explains.

A photograph of Anna Curtis, Head of Land Use Planning, working at a site in the Cypress Hills.
Anna Curtis, Head of Land Use Planning, working at a site in the Cypress Hills.

As Anna puts it, the Land Use Planning Section is on the “front line” of the Historic Resources Management Branch when it comes to communicating these requirements to the proponents of development. Land Use Planning receives plans from proponents and determines which part of Alberta Culture—Archaeological Survey, Aboriginal Heritage, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, or Historic Places Stewardship—might need to review the plans to assess if approval should be conditional, requiring that the proponent first complete a study or undertake some action to mitigate the potential impact to a historic resource. If so, Land Use Planning then “translates” the technical language into a regulatory order for the proponent. As Anna puts it: “We aren’t the authorities, we don’t make those decisions [about how best to mitigate or offset the effects of development]—what we do is coordinate what everybody else says, and put it into a format that is both an order to the proponent and [something] the proponent will understand.”

Coordinating the Protection of Historic Resources

Because Land Use Planning acts as a central coordinator, the different sections of the branch can concentrate on their specialties without needing to worry about presenting a comprehensive requirement for the proponent to follow: Land Use Planning synthesizes the different sections’ points of view. Anna explains, “Managing the project is what we’re all about. We’re the central point. The archaeologists don’t necessarily have to know what the palaeontologists want—that’s our job.” She has been the Head for not quite two years. Previously, she worked at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, doing land use planning in palaeontology. For the last ten years, she worked with the federal government in an Aboriginal relations and consultation capacity. All four areas that Land Use Planning covers (archaeology, palaeontology, Aboriginal traditional use, and historic use [structures]), Anna has covered in her personal background—meaning that she’s well-equipped to head up her section’s mandate to synthesize and communicate the different sections’ requirements.

Heritage Conservation and Development are (usually) Compatible

Because Land Use Planning is on the front line, the section also handles many of the questions that come in from the public about the branch’s work. Sometimes citizens call because they want a particular project in their area stopped. “There’s a lot of concern with certain types of developments, such as gravel pits” says Anna, giving an example, “…and a lot of people don’t want those developments near them in their area. So a lot of times we’ll get calls, with people wanting to know if we can stop developments. That is not the Historic Resources Management Branch’s role, Anna remarks. “That’s not what the [Historical Resources] Act is for. It’s not to stop development. It’s [about] how do we preserve and protect [historic] resources while allowing development to happen.”

Occasionally, though, a particular historic resource is deemed far too valuable to allow development to impact it. This was the case with the Quarry of the Ancestors, a significant stone-quarrying and tool-making site for pre-contact native peoples, situated in the middle of the oil sands. “It’s a big deal when you remove part of an oil sands lease out of production,” Anna notes.

But most of the time, rather than putting a halt to development, the Historic Resources Management Branch makes sure that studies are done so that information can be obtained about the site before development that may damage the historic resource is allowed to move forward. With all the development happening in the province, the branch is busy. The Land Use Planning Section helps the branch to stay ahead in several ways.

Anna’s section works with municipalities, so that their administrations understand what kinds of developments need to be reviewed. They also work closely with other Government of Alberta regulatory ministries and, of course, with different industry sectors, to identify projects with significant potential to impact historic resources. “We’re looking for those developments that are going to have a big impact,” Anna says. “For instance, we do a lot of work with…Alberta Transportation; they are big on gravel pits, roads, bridges—those are big projects in the province.”

Every Project is Unique

Land Use Planning also must keep informed about how different types of development affect historic resources differently. A pipeline that goes for hundreds of kilometres, Anna points out, causes a disturbance that is “long and linear. That’s a whole different thing than when you look at something like a gravel pit, which is more constrained in terms of area, but its impact can be quite extensive in terms of historic resources.”

Changing technologies also lead to different types of concerns. For example, open pit mining in the oil sands is now joined by the in situ process—using a series of wells placed in a row that inject steam into the earth and force the oil out of the sand. The impact of these wells on historic resources is wholly different.

The branch also sees “ebbs and flows in these kinds of developments with the commodity markets,” Anna says. When the demand for a particular commodity comes back strong after a downturn, often the technology for extracting that commodity has advanced. Consequently, Land Use Planning needs learn what kind of impact that these new technologies might have on historic resources. “We have to be flexible” in order to keep ahead of those changes, Anna says. “It’s a challenge because it’s a constantly moving target,” Anna remarks, “but it’s an interesting challenge.”

It’s not just heavy industry that the Land Use Planning Section has to take into account. The branch is currently seeing a great “increase in urban areas and the loss of native prairie, and a lot of that native prairie can have good potential [for containing historic resources].”

The Listing of Historic Resources

The Land Use Planning Section also assists to ensure that the Listing of Historic Resources is an up-to-date and effective tool for the branch. The listing is the provincial government’s database, identifying lands that contain or are believed to contain historic sites, including archaeological and paleontological sites, Aboriginal traditional use sites, and historic structures. “The HRMB updates [the list] every six months according to the work that’s been done,” Anna explains. If an excavated site is found not to be as significant as previously supposed, it may be given a lower priority ranking. This gives the branch a heads-up that other proponents in the same area might not need to perform extensive excavations. As new sites are discovered in the process of doing studies in an area, they are added to the list (and if research makes it clear that a site is of greater significance than previously thought, it can be given a higher ranking), so the branch will be aware that any development in the area is likely to require more in-depth studies before it can proceed. “The various sections use these studies to inform the branch’s decision-making process,” Anna says, and to be “conscious and mindful of the status of resources in the provinces. We don’t ask for studies for the sake of asking for studies.”

Alberta’s Historic Resources are Well Protected

“There is such good, strong regulatory oversight for historic resources in Alberta. It’s some of the strongest legislation in the country,” Anna concludes. “History is something that people always think of as an abstract, and this is tangible history. It’s satisfying to me to know that tangible history is not being lost—that we are making every effort to ensure that the most important sites are being protected and that we are extracting information.”

Plus, Anna reminds us, technology changes not only for extractive industries but also for those who unlock the secrets of our past. “Maybe ten years from now people will have different technology” with which to study historic resources, Anna says. “Suddenly we’ll have a whole other level of information that we didn’t have before.”

Written by: Gretchen A. Albers.