What Projects Need HRA Approval, or “Clearance”?

As Consulting Archaeologists, most of our work supports “regulatory compliance”.  We help developers get government approval by assessing and mitigating potential impacts to historic resource sites.  I’m frequently asked by developers whether a specific project requires Historical Resource Act Approval (or “Clearance”, as it was known before 2012).

This isn’t as easy a question as one might think.  Different projects have different levels of impact, and not every development requires approval.  Guidelines for developers are spread across numerous Bulletins and buried in the Instructions for Use of the Listing of Historic Resources.  To make life easier, I thought I’d try to summarize these rules in one place.  Please keep in mind that HRA regulations are constantly changing, so this is a snapshot of the state of the system in spring 2020. If you know of another trigger, or a development class I’ve missed, please let me know.

Alberta Culture uses a variety of triggering mechanisms.  The key tool for determining HRA Requirements is the Listing of Historic Resources.   The Listing was originally developed as a screening tool for small-scale oil and gas.  In response to requests from industry and regulatory agencies to provide more transparency and certainty, Culture is moving towards using the Listing for a wider range of developments. 

Parcels of land are registered on the Listing with a Historic Resource Value (HRV).  HRVs are ranked from 1 through 4  for known sites, or 5 for lands believed to contain a site (high potential).  Each entry on the Listing also has a class, which represents the type of resource.  Historic resources can include archaeological sites, paleontological sites, Traditional Land Use Areas, and historic buildings.  (You can read more about different types of resources here).  There are still many areas of Alberta that have historic resources potential that are not included in the Listing.  This is only one of of the many tools used during the screening process.

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An example of the Listing of Historic Resources from Deer Mountain, near Swan Hills.  Red are HRV 4a (lands containing known sites). Yellow are HRV 5a (lands likely to contain sites). 

According to the Listing Instructions, there are several types of development that always require an application for HRA Approval:

  • Any project that requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA): These applications generally result in a requirement for a Historical Resources Baseline Assessment.
  • Any project that requires National Energy Board (NEB) or Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) Approval
  • Forest Harvest Plans: These can be managed through the special Forestry HRA Compliance process.  This is Tree Time’s specialty. Contact me before submitting an Application in OPAC.
  • Class 1 Pipelines
  • Projects requiring Conservation and Reclamation Approval by Alberta Environment. According to the Conservation and Reclamation Guidelines for Alberta this includes:
    • The construction, operation or reclamation of a well, battery, oil production site, pipeline, transmission line, telecommunication system, mine, pit quarry, peat operation or plant.
    • The conduct or reclamation of an exploration operation for coal or oil sands;
    • The construction or reclamation of a roadway
    • The reclamation of a railway
  • All Area Structure Plans and other long-term municipal planning documents.

Some development types use the Listing to selectively trigger requirements for HRA Approval:

  • Small-scale conventional oil and gas developments (wellsites, pipelines, access roads, etc)
    • HRA Approval is required if the footprint overlaps any HRV Listed lands.
  • Surface Materials (sand, gravel, clay, peat, etc. pits):
    • 5 ha or larger / Class 1 Pits: HRA Approval is always required.
    • Under 5 ha / Class 2 Pits: HRA Approval is required if the project area overlaps HRV 1, 2, 3 or 4 lands (known sites).
  • Subdivisions:
    • Most subdivisions: HRA Approval required if the project area overlaps any Listed lands (HRV 1-5).
    • Simple subdivisions (first parcel out, 80-acre split, lot / line boundary adjustment or parcel consolidation): HRA Approval required if the project area overlaps HRV 1, 2, 3, or 4 lands (known sites), but not HRV 5 (high potential).
  • Oil Sands and Coal Exploration operations (drilling programs and associated clearing, access and reclamation): HRA Approval required if the project footprint overlaps any Listed Lands (HRV 1-5).
  • Geophysical Programs (seismic): HRA Approval Required if the project footprint overlaps HRV 1, 2, 3 or 4, (known sites) but not HRV 5 (high potential).
  • Geotechnical exploration operations(drilling programs, including those in support of other projects). HRA Approval Required if the project footprint overlaps HRV 1, 2, 3 or 4, (known sites) but not HRV 5 (high potential).
  • Pipeline Integrity Digs (and similar operations, including all access, workspace, laydown, etc). HRA Approval Required if:
    • The activities will extend off the original disposition footprint, and overlap any Listed lands (HRV 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5), or
    • Any activities are on HRV 1, 2, 3, or 4C lands, even if they’re limited to the existing footprint.
  • Utility Distribution Services (including power, low pressure gas, and water supply projects that aren’t triggered by the EIA, NEB, or AUC processes): HRA Approval Required if:
    • The project footprint overlaps HRV 1, 2, 3, or 4 lands (known sites), or
    • The project footprint overlaps HRV 5 lands (high potential) and involves trenching on undisturbed land (eg. native prairie or forest).

Several other Regulatory processes trigger a review of the Listing and fall under the general Instructions for use of the Listing:

“In the absence of a Land Use Procedures Bulletin specific to the proposed project type and/or industry, the proponent must submit a Historic Resources (HR) Application”

  • Public Lands Dispositions:
    • the LAT (Landscape Analysis Tool) reviews all applications against the Listing and notes a Condition (2060) requiring HRA Approval for any dispositions in HRV 1, 2, 3, or 4 lands (known sites).
    • Dispositions not covered by the Bulletins above, such as miscellaneous leases (MLL), and licenses of occupation (LOC) may also be referred for HRA Approval for HRV 5 lands by approvals officers.
  • Water Act Applications: the Wetland Application Checklist requires submission of the results of a Historical Resources Act “Search”. Any developments that involve significant ground disturbance and overlap Listed lands (HRV 1-5) should be submitted for HRA Approval.
  • Temporary Field Authorization: The TFA Application form requires applicants to check the Listing and requires HRA Approval for all Listed lands (HRV 1-5).
  • Biophysical Impact Assessments: Some municipalities (eg. Calgary) include a check of the Listing, or a requirement for HRA Approval, as part of a Biophysical Impact Assessment.

Generally speaking, any development or activity should be referred to Alberta Culture for HRA Approval if it is:

  1. Located in Listed lands (HRV 1-5), and
  2. Involves disturbance of native prairie or forest, or deep excavation

If you don’t know where to start, or would like someone to review your project before you submit it to Culture, contact me (Kurt) or one of the team at 780-472-8878 or toll free at 1-866-873-3846. You can also email us at [email protected]. We’re happy to help!

Working in the Winter

Specializing in forestry archaeology in Alberta, I haven’t had much opportunity to work in winter conditions. One of the nice things about forestry is its relatively long planning horizon and the flexibility to schedule our work.

Unfortunately, in fall 2012, a variety of factors conspired to push some of our fieldwork into late October, and then we got an unusually early and heavy snowfall in northwestern Alberta. The heavy snow prevented the ground from freezing, so we went ahead with our planned surveys of forestry cutblocks, conducting landform evaluation and shovel testing as normal.

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unusually deep snow (our shovels are about 1 m long!)

Trudging through 50 cm of fresh powder gave me some perspectives on moving and living in the boreal forest under winter conditions that I hadn’t previously gained. I had wondered what effect snow cover would have on mobility patterns. Summer travel in the forest tends to follow linear features like river and stream valley margins, but I’d wondered if under winter conditions that would still be the case. This week it certainly was. We were working on the Chinchaga River valley, and found that travel along the valley margin was much easier than cutting cross country or on the slopes or lower terraces. I’d say the advantage was even greater than under summer conditions. The level backcountry had deeper snow than the exposed margins, and the snow on the slopes was even deeper than that. The grey overcast sky and falling snow also obscured the sun, which made it very hard to maintain a bearing cross-country without a compass. Without a landform to follow, I could have been walking in circles and wouldn’t know until I hit my tracks.

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Trudging through the deep snow.

If I was camping under those conditions, however, I think I’d be choosing very different locations than I would in the summer. The distinct valley margins, corners and points that we tend to focus our surveys on had great views of the river and were on our preferred walking paths. But they were also very exposed to the biting wind coming out of the northwest. Even the south-facing edges were exposed. The most comfortable locations we found to break for coffee were just back from the edge, sheltered in stands of immature spruce. For the last couple seasons, I’d been suspecting that our focus on exposed corners and points was only finding one class of sites, and this experience reinforces that suspicion. I think that winter camps in particular, and possibly all larger camps, would be located back from the sharp landform edges that we’re targeting most. Drainage is still a factor, especially on warm winter days when the snow turns to mush, so we should still be looking for local elevation. But maybe we should be testing some less distinct elevated landforms a little back from the edges if we want to find sites occupied during less than ideal weather.

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Snow is a little shallower in the protected areas under the immature spruce.

(This brief article was originally published in the Archaeological Society of Alberta Newsletter Vol. 1, January 2013)

Glacial Flutes

Ryan is doing layout work to protect wetlands and streams during aerial herbicide application and he got this great shot of glacial fluting northeast of Calling Lake.

These parallel ridges were formed when the Laurentide ice sheet coming southwest from the Canadian Shield hit bedrock uplands at the east end of the Pelican Mountains. The base of the glacier formed a saw-tooth pattern that scoured these ridges and troughs for several kilometers.

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This is how these glacial flutes appear on LiDAR.

Call for Papers: Rocky Mountain Anthropological Conference

The Rocky Mountain Anthropological Conference is meeting in Canmore, Alberta September 21 to 24.

Tree Time’s Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt is organizing a session:

“Current research on the Eastern Slopes”

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Historically, the eastern slopes and foothills of the Canadian Rockies have been treated as a peripheral region, either the fringe of the northwest plains and boreal subarctic, or a wilderness frontier between the plains and the central interior of British Columbia.  Recent academic and consulting work in the eastern slopes is identifying the region as an important area for understanding precontact occupation from the earliest peopling of the Americas to the historic past. This session will bring together recent research on eastern slopes travel and trade, resource use, site distribution and land-use patterns, local cultural adaptations, and intra-regional variation.

If you’re interested in participating in this session, please email [email protected], or submit an abstract to the conference website: http://rmac2017.org/home.html

Archaeology Risk Management Plans?

 

In a previous blog post, I wrote about how remediation and archaeological impact assessment pose very similar problems, from a technical perspective. In both cases, there is something in the ground, and we need to figure out where, how much, and what to do about it. My impression is that remediation is well ahead of archaeology on both the technical and regulatory fronts. This is actually a good thing. It means we can borrow and adapt methods and procedures that have been proven to work.

Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) recently released a draft Risk Management Plan guide to update their guidance on the requirements for Risk Management Plans for Exposure Control. Exposure Control is an alternative to traditional remediation of contaminated sites when full remediation is not technically feasible. AEP’s preferred approach to contamination is remediation (removal of the contaminants), but they’re willing to entertain leaving contaminants in the ground as long as an adequate risk management plan is in place. Both Exposure Control and full remediation have parallels in archaeology; exposure control is very similar to avoidance and remediation is akin to mitigative excavation. In archaeology, the preference is for avoidance over mitigation, because excavation is destructive and archaeology is a non-renewable resource, so we opt for site avoidance whenever we can. This poses a number of challenges:

  • A commitment to avoidance doesn’t provide the clear regulatory closure that site clearance or a completed mitigation does.
  • Once an archaeological site is in-situ within a crown disposition or development footprint there are no regulatory mechanisms to trigger review if development plans change.
  • Long term, theoretically perpetual, avoidance of an archaeological site requires some mechanism to ensure that commitment is communicated to future operators and owners.
  • Ongoing monitoring of hundreds or thousands of avoidance commitments would require substantial regulatory resources.

Too often, avoidance commitments are made and resources are left in-situ, only to be disturbed by later development through miscommunication or human error. The Historic Resource Management Branch of Alberta Culture and Tourism (ACT) has recognized this problem, and has begun requesting more details when proponents opt for site avoidance, but hasn’t yet developed the regulatory mechanisms to address it. Fortunately, Alberta Environment and Parks has had to deal with a lot of contaminated sites and has developed a very detailed and robust draft Risk Management Plan Guide that addresses a lot of the same risks.

AEP has identified several core components of an adequate Risk Management Plan:

  1. Administrative information, including the identification of the person(s) legally responsible to maintain and monitor the plan until the site meets remediation guidelines.
  2. A detailed background to provide the context of the site; essential to ensure that the Risk Management Plan will survive regulatory and operational personnel changes.
  3. Identification of the contaminants (resources) of concern.
  4. Identification of risks associated with the site under current conditions.
  5. A Conceptual Site Model, which is a detailed visual and written description of the site, incorporating all currently known information. (This is another tool archaeologists could borrow from the remediation world to improve how we communicate about sites.)
  6. A summary of current land-use and zoning, which are factors that can dramatically affect the level of risk to a site.
  7. Complete Delineation. Again, remediation is far ahead of archaeology when it comes to standards and methods for accurate delineation and evaluation of sites. In order to accurately evaluate risks, we need a better understanding of the site than is currently obtained at the archaeological survey (HRIA) stage.

AEP also systematically breaks down the Exposure Control Plans to ensure that they will address all of the challenges we raised above. In addition to the detailed exposure control (avoidance) methods that will be implemented, and the rationale for their selection, the Plan has to include:

  1. Timelines and organizational requirements to ensure continuity.
  2. An evaluation of the remaining risks.
  3. A monitoring plan, which is explicitly the proponent’s responsibility, in perpetuity, and must include a schedule and reporting and record keeping mechanisms.
  4. A contingency plan in the event of failure.

Finally, an adequate Risk Management Plan includes a communication plan to ensure that all stakeholders (such as regulators, land owners, municipalities, and First Nations) are aware of the plan, informed of monitoring results, and notified in the event of a failure.

As archaeological mitigation costs continue to rise, our ability to predict and detect the location of sites improves, and community interest in sites of all types increases, proponents will be opting for avoidance and other alternatives to mitigation more often. AEP’s Risk Management Plan model may seem overly prescriptive to archaeological professionals used to fairly open standards and a lot of regulatory freedom, but the continued occurrence of avoidance failures indicates that the current system isn’t working. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Techniques, procedures and regulatory models for the long-term management of risks on the land already exist. AEP will be releasing their final guide for Risk Management Plans in the near future. Archaeology Consultants could easily adapt AEPs template to provide our regulators with the information and tools they need to manage and monitor long-term avoidance and other innovative historic resource management options.

To keep up to date on Historic Resource regulations and processes, you can subscribe to our quarterly Regulatory Update email.

Archaeology in the Fort McMurray Fire

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View from a burned aspen stand to the Gregoire River valley.

At the end of June we started work on planned fire salvage harvest blocks for Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, southeast of Anzac Alberta. This was the southeastern end of this springs massive Fort McMurray forest fire. When fire kills or damages a stand, there’s a limited time-frame within which the wood can still be salvaged for lumber or pulp. Planning for salvage started before the fire was under control. Once it was safe to do layout work we had a narrow window to get in and complete our Historic Resource Impact Assessment of the salvage plan before harvest operations would start.
As the Forest Management Agreement holder for most of northeastern Alberta, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries has a long-term right to harvest aspen and poplar for their pulp mill north of Athabasca. This long term land tenure comes with a lot of responsibilities. These include a responsibility to salvage as much timber as they can from wildfires, and a responsibility to complete historic resource impact assessments of their operations.
The Historic Resource Management Branch of Alberta Culture understands that fire salvage is not part of a forest company’s normal Annual Operating Plan. It’s often difficult to know the final block boundaries until harvest is complete because the timber has to be damaged by the fire, but not too burned. There is therefore some concession given for late-season or last-minute salvage plans, which can be deferred to post-harvest impact assessment the following season.
In this case, Al-Pac wanted to ensure due diligence by completing their HRIA’s prior to salvage, so we started our fieldwork immediately after the layout crews finished putting up their block boundary ribbon. Fire salvage can be both a challenge and an opportunity for historic resource management. In addition to the logistical challenges of the narrow timeframe and uncertainty, working in a fire stand increases some safety hazards. There is of course the risk of holdover fires or flareups. There’s also an increased risk of blowdown from snags (standing dead trees) with their roots burned out and hangers (fallen trees and limbs hung up on other trees). Foresters call these “widowmakers” for a reason. There is often increased bear activity as they take advantage of the fresh green growth, grubs, and in later summer berry production, made available by the fire.
Forest fires also increase the risk of impact to archaeological sites. Forest harvest operations are normally pretty low impact, as far as archaeology is concerned. Feller-bunchers and skidders have large tracks and wheels to keep their footprints light. Under normal conditions, harvest leaves some tracks and trails, but the thick moss and duff of the boreal forest protect buried archaeological sites from a lot of the potential disturbance. A hot ground fire burns off much of the moss and duff, leaving the shallowly buried artifacts typical of the boreal forest much more vulnerable to exposure and displacement.
This factor is also what makes some fires an opportunity for archaeology. One of the hardest parts of doing archaeology in the boreal forest is the fact that everything is covered by a mat of moss, with almost no surface exposure. The only way to find sites is to dig labour-intensive shovel tests, and these provide very limited windows into the buried past. In a hot fire, the moss has been burned off, and we can see a much larger window. In some cases, scatters of artifacts, in-situ (in place) where they were left thousands of years ago, are sitting on the surface.
That wasn’t the case this week. We found a couple of sites where the fire didn’t burn quite that hot, including a probable Besant point, but we had to dig for them, as usual.
I also found a renewed appreciation for the resiliency of the boreal forest, and how well it’s adapted to a frequent fire regime. It’s only been two months since the fires burned through the area, and most of the burn is covered in a lush green carpet of fresh growth. Plants like fireweed, sasparilla, wild rose, raspberry and bunchberry have sprouted from root systems protected from the fire. Aspen and poplar suckers with huge deep green leaves are already knee to hip high. Insects are present in abundance, birdsong can be heard, deer and moose sign shows they’ve returned, and we saw a black bear sow with two cubs.

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By salvaging the burnt timber, Al-Pac will help to fast-track that cycle of renewal, and will leave other areas they’d planned to harvest to grow for another season or two. By having us complete our historic resource impact assessments before harvest, we’ve identified and protected two potentially significant archaeological sites in an area that’s still pretty poorly understood. These are some good examples of how the forest industry plays an important role in Alberta’s woodlands, helping to manage multiple values on the landscape, and balance their operations with ecological and cultural concerns.