Alberta NDP, Wildland Provincial Park sparks anger to Remove ORV Trails
“Lock her up.” The words, shouted out by a male heckler in the crowd, cut through the air during Premier of Alberta Rachel Notley’s speech for the unveiling of the final boundaries for Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village Museum in Pincher Creek on Jan. 20.
The provincial government’s announcement of the park’s boundaries and conditions were met with polarized responses of both backlash and support. Notley and Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips spoke to a full house of approximately 200 people at the Museum. Piikani Nation Chief Stanley Grier expressed the great significance the land holds to Piikani people, calling it a “historic day for this region.” Renee Richards out of Lethbridge spoke in support of the parks creation from the perspective of a frequent visitor to the area.
Castle Provincial Park and Wildland Park comprise approximately 1,000 square kilometers of protected land, intended to preserve the aquatic habitats and biodiversity in the area, including over 200 rare or at-risk species. The government will also continue working closely with Indigenous populations, for whom the Castle area holds meaningful cultural, historical and subsistent significance.
The parks welcome low-impact recreation activities like hiking, organized camping and regulated hunting, trapping and sport fishing. However, OHV enthusiasts feel their wishes and input have been blatantly disregarded and consider a phasing out unreasonable.
“Wild spaces have always been one of most precious treasures in Alberta. In our province, the landscape is part of who we are. We are campers, we are hikers, we are mountain bikers and we are much more,” said Notley, which prompted a yell of, “quadders, snowmobilers,” from a male in the crowd.
The government has released a draft management plan for the parks in which they propose a two- to five-year phase-out of off-highway vehicle use on the trails, an outdoor sport that plays a vital role in the lifestyle and economy of the Crowsnest Pass and surrounding area.
Mayor of Crowsnest Pass Blair Painter said that the impact of OHV prohibition in Castle Park will be “huge” for the community, adding that “it drives our economy.”
Wildrose MLA for the Constituency of Livingstone Macleod Pat Stier echoes the sentiment.
“There will be some impacts, I believe, to businesses in the Crowsnest,” he says. “There will be impacts in terms of traffic, there will be concerns about a change of revenues to tourism industries down there. Even the off-highway vehicle distributors, I imagine, would be affected.”
Motorized sport enthusiasts and the towns that depend on OHV tourism feel shunned by the decision and express a blunt lack of consultation on the government’s part.
Although Phillips indicated that alternative infrastructure will be established in the area to accommodate OHV enthusiasts where they can take part in the sport “in places where it is environmentally responsible to have that activity,” president of the Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad Gary Clark sees a bleak future for motorized vehicle use in the area, considering that the Porcupine and Livingstone Range are also calling for the reduction of trails in the area.
“Why build more trails when you have a good, solid trail system now that can be further developed? That’s a much lower cost than building new trails,” he adds.
Clark says that the government is disregarding the important role that OHV use plays in the community.
“They don’t seem to realize the economic benefits that OHV use brings into this community,” he says. “I just don’t understand where their heads are because they seem to be putting the cart before the horse.”
Since the group’s creation 20 years ago, the Quad Squad has been an instrumental player in promoting responsible OHV use, and creating and maintaining trails in the Castle area with the intent of ensuring the conversation and preservation of the forest, waterways and backcountry. The organization oversees over 1,300 km of trails in Southwest Alberta and has built over 30 bridges that protect fish habitats in the park area.
Clark concedes that as with anything, there are riders that stray off trails and don’t follow proper OHV regulations, but he encourages better enforcement and signage rather than punishing the entire OHV community for the mistakes of a few.
The draft management plan has been designed following a consultation period that was launched after the initial announcement on Sep. 4, 2015. Minister Phillips stated that the government sought input from key stakeholders to inform the draft management plan, including environmental advocates, hunting and fishing advocates, the Alberta Off Highway Vehicles Association, as well as the Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad.
However, the Alberta Fish and Game Association and the Quad Squad have a very different impression of the government’s collaborative intent.
Clark indicates that while the government did make steps to seek his recommendations and opinion, his input was falling on deaf ears.
“I believe that they have tried to do a public consultation process, but I also feel that they haven’t listened to what we’ve been saying,” he says.
According to Clark, he had many concerns with the overall process that the decision was made.
“I was put on the Management Board, which was supposed to be making recommendations to the government, and as far as I’m aware, I haven’t voted on any recommendations,” he says. “So I’m not sure why this board was even convened because the government is obviously not listening to what we are saying. That is my main disappointment with the NDP government.”
Brian Dingreville, 2nd vice president of the Alberta Fish and Game Association, expressed similar concerns, stating that the government released the draft management plan while discussions were still ongoing.
“Over the last several months, meetings took place with the provincial government with regards to a draft that we were supposed to come up with and present to the provincial government, which would then be brought forward to the public and we would be given opportunities to discuss it,” he said. “The meetings have not concluded, firstly, which is a total slap in the face because it tells me that they have no regard or any respect for any of the people that were involved in the working group.”
While hunting, fishing and trapping are still allowed under the draft regulations, Dingreville indicated that he has lost confidence in the government given that the Quad Squad was initially told that there would be OHV trails available for use.
“So does that mean that in a couple of years, we’re going to get booted out?” he says. “I have lost total respect for anything that they have said the past. I have no respect whatsoever for the NDP government at all. None.”
Pat Stier also expressed concern with the government’s lack of transparency and consultation with stakeholders.
“I think there could have been a broader amount of consultation held throughout the province on such radical changes,” says Stier. “What is their long-range goal and plan? No one seems to know that. They just seem to be doing herky-jerky moves once in a while. I understand the worries and concerns of the business owners and the impacts to the Pass. I only hope that we can figure out a way to move forward and that it will help our economy and not negatively impact it.”
While the press conference was teeming with environmental advocates, children, the Piikani Nation and supporters of the parks creation, there was a general sense of being ignored on the side of OHV groups and other users of the Castle area. The Pass Herald received a call from the Notley office one hour prior. The Alberta Fish and Game Association was informed of the press conference the evening before it would take place, and The Municipality of Crowsnest Pass was informed only 18 hours prior.
“In my opinion, there was really no consultation between our two municipalities that this was going to take place or that we were fairly engaged with any portion of this consultation,” says Mayor of Crowsnest Pass Blair Painter.
“Ninety percent of the people involved in the working group are working people, so for us to make a decision to get to that would be very difficult. They had no regard for us as a working group whatsoever,” said Dingreville.
On the other hand, Piikani First Nation had time to prepare a dance for the press conference, and conservation activists such as Stephen Legault from Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative had time to make it to Pincher Creek from his place of residence in Canmore.
In addition to land use restrictions, a fee structure will also be discussed at the consultation phase of the project.
“The fee structure will most likely be similar to what we have in other parks,” says Rick Blackwood, Assistant Deputy Minister with Alberta Environment and Parks. “We try to have consistency across the parks system, but during the consultation phase those are all the types of things that we’re still trying to sort out.”
A 60-day online public consultation period has launched where the public can provide input on the parks’ features. While several sections included a box to type in an original response, the majority of questions require multiple-choice answers on a “strongly agree” to a “strongly disagree” scale. Concerning the use of OHVs in the park, it’s not a question of “if”; it’s a question of “is a transition period necessary?”
The public can participate in the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park Draft Management Plan Survey here: https://www.albertaparks.ca/albertaparksca/about-us/public-consultations/