Who knows the potential of our region? (part 10)

Part ten in a ten-part series on the history of the Special Areas region.
Everyone knows that different tools have different functions. A crescent wrench will not do the work of a hacksaw. If someone owns a toolbox with nothing in it but a hammer, every problem will look like a nail.
Governance models are tools. They can be designed for specific tasks. The Special Areas Board (SAB), for example, was created in the 1930s to solve a set of problems related to land use, depopulation, and bankrupt municipalities.
According to two different government commissions (called Longman and Hanson), the SAB did a terrific job of carrying out the rehabilitation process. Even so, these commissions recognized that as a governance tool, the Special Areas system imposes restrictions and limitations upon the region and its people that don’t apply to others. For example, simple dispute resolution mechanisms that apply to municipalities and counties don’t apply to us.
Both commissions indicated that the SAB had been the right tool for the time and circumstance, but to facilitate the future, a new and different governance tool would be more suitable. (According to one source the Special Areas population has gone from an all-time high of nearly 30,000 to just over 4,000 today. If depopulation continues, residents—and certainly the next generations—risk not only the loss of public services, but the deterioration and even the disappearance of private ones.)
These investigative commissions knew that the Special Areas Act had to give complete authority over the region to a single cabinet minister in order to fulfill its mandate. The Act now creates a situation where a future activist-style minister could be as intrusive in our region as he chooses, rather than residents making their own choices.
Positioning themselves for the future, the Special Areas region known as Bow West (covering a vast area southwest of Brooks between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat), re-established local government in the 1950s. Former Municipal Affairs Minister Ray Speaker, whose family has farmed in that area for generations, said the transition to locally elected government was seamless—without bumps.
The first Special Areas region was Tilley East, created in 1927 and covering nearly 2500 square miles. Its western boundary was roughly halfway between Medicine Hat and Brooks. It stretched from the Red Deer River south to the South Saskatchewan River, and then east to the border. It suffered more than any other region during the hardest years of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Tilley East re-established locally elected county government in the 1980s. According to that county’s former reeve, the new administration immediately sold 1200 quarter-sections to farmers and ranchers (at attractive terms), and saved more than a million dollars that first year through greater efficiency in administration, road building, and maintenance.
In terms of future possibilities for what remains of the Special Areas, many people realize that historic drought and cropping conditions in parts of southern Alberta were similar to those experienced in our region. Yet provincially and federally supported irrigation has changed a million acres or more from dryland desert to highly productive farmland with numerous spinoff benefits. Why can’t we have the same?
Perhaps we should be looking for the tools to achieve some of the considerations that have enabled former Special Areas Bow West and Tilley East to move on. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had some of the same opportunities?
This commentary is by the Hard Grass Landowners Council and is prepared by an editorial committee that includes: Bruce Beasley, Richard Bailey, Murray Sankey, and Pat Rutledge.

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