On January 20th, the Government of Alberta announced boundaries for two new parks in the Castle area and asked Albertans for feedback on the draft management plan. Most Albertans would assume this is good news, yet you wouldn’t know it from the way off-highway vehicle (OHV) users reacted. They are upset the Castle Parks draft management plan proposes a phase-out of OHVs over the next five years and see it as a change of heart by the provincial government. They complain about insufficient consultation and are doing anything they can during the 60-day public feedback period to pressure the government to back down from the proposal.
Effective consultation ensures you have an opportunity to have a say – it does not guarantee that you will always get your way. Consultation won’t change key facts about the new Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Parks. Environmental protection proposed for the parks likely won’t be compatible with OHV use. Alberta’s population has grown dramatically in the past two decades leaving the status quo unsustainable.
The province has made it clear that a phase-out is part of a pragmatic solution and they will consult with OHV groups about constructing trails in less sensitive areas. OHV groups readily admit there are bad apples out there, but insist most riders are really responsible. If we want to be truly responsible about our headwaters, we have to look carefully at where activity is appropriate and where it is not. Partial closures might leave the door open for use of unauthorized trails in sensitive areas. If we allow for responsible users, how do we block the bad apples?
Compromises are necessary. River crossings, driving up streambeds, and illegal trails are causing excessive sedimentation in our rivers. This causes significant damage to the places that fish live, feed, and spawn. It’s especially concerning for our threatened native trout that call these watersheds home. All user groups need to be prepared to have an honest discussion on the impact recreational activities are having on habitat.
The Castle controversy has taken away from these important conversations, and it hasn’t lead to comprehensive solutions for more sustainable OHV use. Wouldn’t it be great if an area less sensitive than the Castle Park had a network of world-class, engineered touring trails for high-performance riders? These spaces could stay clear of swamps, bogs, and streams while still offering scenic views and challenges for riders.
OHV leaders need to do something more constructive than fight this. They should help find innovative approaches to existing problems. Local OHV associations could manage trailheads, charge membership fees, and ensure trails are periodically inspected to ensure compliance. Trails like the Rubicon in California have been doing this successfully for years. To increase enforcement and pay for trail rehabilitation, the government could require a specific licence for recreation OHV use on public lands.
We also need to get serious about enforcement. This means more officers on the ground and heftier fines for OHV users who cause damage. I for one would be willing to pay more for something like a fishing licence if I knew it meant a stronger enforcement presence.
We all benefit from healthier headwaters, and we all benefit from constructive conversations about OHV use. This is not a political issue; this is about doing the right thing. Our headwaters are not just areas for us to play, they also represent more than 80 per cent of our fresh water supply and act as our natural buffers against major flooding events. Securing our fresh water should be something we all agree on.
If the protection of our watersheds and preservation of habitat is truly a priority, we need to take a comprehensive view of our land use practices in these sensitive areas. Protecting these areas is not about pitting one group against another, it is about preserving the future of some of Alberta’s most precious resources.
About the Author: Jordan Pinkster is a born and raised Albertan who currently serves as the Vice-President of the Bow River Chapter – Trout Unlimited Canada.
Albertans can add their comments to the Castle Management Plan by completing the public consultation survey.