October 21st, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 41
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Hunting and off-highway vehicles in a provincial park?
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Ezra Black Photo
Castle River at Castle Falls Provincial Recreation Area.
EZRA BLACK
Pass Herald Reporter
On Sept. 4, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips announced the government would protect the Castle Wilderness Area by turning more than 1,000 square kilometres of it into a provincial park and provincial wildland area.

But with plans to allow activities like hunting and off-highway vehicle use in the Castle provincial park, which are usually forbidden, the government has upset the conservationists who originally celebrated its decision, made bedfellows with hunters and off-highway vehicle (OHV) users and seems to be creating a provincial park like no other.

“We left the number of permitted activities within the provincial park very open so we could talk to the public about it,” says Phillips. “We didn’t want to preclude what that park would look like.”

But permitting activities like hunting or OHV use will mean protecting the area in name only say some conservationists.

Sean Nichols, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, says off-highway vehicle (OHV) use has no place in either the provincial park or the wildland parks.

“It’s far too destructive to the native ecosystem of the area,” he says.

So far, Lakeland Provincial Park west of Lac La Biche has been the exception to the rule. The park has one OHV trail, which is mostly used for access to a launching area for canoeists and boaters, says Nichols.

Nichols says the scale of OHV use in the Castle Area would be much greater.

“This is not at all appropriate for a provincial park. It is not consistent with regulations. The government proposes this designation but then proposes all these allowable activities? It seems internally inconsistent to us. Why would we have parks if we were not actually protecting anything there?”

The association has compiled almost a decade’s worth of data that shows that Alberta’s OHV use is unsustainable.

Since 2003, the association has used traffic sensors at three trailheads connecting about 70 kilometres of designated off-highway vehicle trails in the Bighorn region in the Alberta foothills southwest of Edmonton.

Its numbers show use has grown significantly apace the length and depth of trail ruts left by OHVs. Up to 95 of every 100 meters of trail were carved out at least 30 centimeters deep. The erosion of trails gets so bad it diverts streambeds and adds to the sedimentation of sensitive fish habitat.

Gary Clark, president Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad, disagrees and says sustainable OHV use will be possible in the parks.

“We must remember that the backcountry is for everyone's use, not just a select few,” he says.

“We are not asking for use in all parks, but we are asking to be allowed to continue to use present Government Designated Trails Systems already in place where we have had historic use in the past,” says Clark. “It would be an entirely different scenario if the park was announced and there were not any OHV trails and we were asking to make new trails. We would not even consider that, we just want to enjoy the backcountry like anyone else has a right to, on present trail systems.”
continued below ...
Clark says the Quad Squad and the province invested heavily in a flood rehabilitation program to restore the Castle’s trail systems after the floods and water damage of 2013. Deep ruts and water running down the trails caused serious damage but in most areas trenching across the trails so water could flow to the creeks repaired this.

The group has also been undertaking a bridge building program for the last 15 years to prevent erosion and damage and to prevent sedimentation of streams. There are approximately 500 kilometers of trails and roughly 30 quad bridges in place in the Castle Area.

“If OHVs were not allowed continued use of these trails, then there would be no point in the bridges being in place and they would have to be moved where they could be of better use,” says Clark. “We estimate the cost of moving these bridges to be in the neighbourhood of $500,000.”

Banning OHV use in the park could also force users to use other open areas north of Highway 3, which would create additional stress for those trail systems, says Clark.

The proposal to allow hunting in the parks has irked other conservationists.

In a letter published by many major newspapers, Ian Urquhart, a member of the AWA, says even the Progressive Conservatives prohibited hunting in Alberta’s provincial parks, with the exception of the elk cull in Cypress Hills Provincial Park.

But while the cull is a specific management strategy, Urquhart says there is no ecological justification for allowing hunting in the Castle provincial park.

“It’s absurd,” he says.

“Looking ahead, what precedent might these damaging exceptions create for future Alberta parks?” he says. “If I can hunt in the new Castle provincial park, why shouldn’t I be able to hunt in the next new park?”

Colton Newton, vice-president of the Hillcrest Fish and Game Protective Association, does not agree and insists that lawful hunting should be permitted in the provincial park.

The group has given its tacit support to the protection of the Castle Area but that could change if the province clamps down too hard on hunters, fishers and trappers.

“If they stop hunting, we don’t favour the park at all,” he says. “It’s an area with historical use and with the right enforcement we can have multiple users on the same land doing what they want, without having to eliminate hunting. We want to see conservation but I think it’s a give and take sort of thing.”

Though some hunting takes place north of Highway 3, Newton says almost every member of his association spends time in the Castle Area. While he applauds the government’s decision to allow hunting, Newton is pushing for more information on what that specifically means.
continued below ...
“We want to know what the hunting will look like,” he says. “Will the tags and quotas be changed? Will we have access to the same areas?”

Phillips has been in discussion with hunters, OHV users and conservationists and other groups. She hopes to find a way to compromise but acknowledges that not all of the parties will be happy.

“My intention here is to turn down the temperature on these conversations and chart out a rational path forward,” she says. “Not everyone is going to get what they want. That’s the fact of the matter but we’re aiming to achieve balance.”

The 30-day public comment period that will allow amendments to the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, which is needed to designate the parks, has ended. The minister promises more opportunities for public input as the park's management plans are designed. She also says the protection of the Castle area remains a significant step.

“We ended commercial logging and terminated mining leases in the area and that’s a very significant environmental commitment to this province,” she says. “We have gone further than in the previous 40-years and we did that within four months.”

“If they stop hunting, we don’t favour the park at all,” he says. “It’s an area with historical use and with the right enforcement we can have multiple users on the same land doing what they want, without having to eliminate hunting. We want to see conservation but I think it’s a give and take sort of thing.”

Though some hunting takes place north of Highway 3, Newton says almost every member of his association spends time in the Castle Area. While he applauds the government’s decision to allow hunting, Newton is pushing for more information on what that specifically means.

“We want to know what the hunting will look like,” he says. “Will the tags and quotas be changed? Will we have access to the same areas?”

Phillips has been in discussion with hunters, OHV users and conservationists and other groups. She hopes to find a way to compromise but acknowledges that not all of the parties will be happy.

“My intention here is to turn down the temperature on these conversations and chart out a rational path forward,” she says. “Not everyone is going to get what they want. That’s the fact of the matter but we’re aiming to achieve balance.”

The 30-day public comment period that will allow amendments to the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, which is needed to designate the parks, has ended. The minister promises more opportunities for public input as the park's management plans are designed. She also says the protection of the Castle area remains a significant step.

“We ended commercial logging and terminated mining leases in the area and that’s a very significant environmental commitment to this province,” she says. “We have gone further than in the previous 40-years and we did that within four months.”
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October 21st ~ Vol. 85 No. 41
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