Off-highway vehicle users are fighting a government plan to keep them out of new parks proposed for southwestern Alberta.
Members of the Quad Squad, a group of riders from the Crowsnest Pass area, say they were blindsided by the province’s recent announcement that it will close all trails for off-highway vehicles within five years in the two parks in the Castle wilderness area.
“We are concerned that the public input has not been properly addressed,” group member Gary Clark said.
He said a public board appointed by the province to advise it on management of the 1,000-square-kilometre region hasn’t even had a chance to make recommendations. As well, he points out, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips had previously said quad use would still be allowed in the park.
Phillips said new information caused the reversal.
“It’s the science,” she said Tuesday.
A recent analysis found the region has a road density of between one and 3.5 kilometres per square kilometre. Alberta’s threshold for bear recovery is no more than 0.75 kilometres per square kilometre.
Other research has found virtually all southern Alberta streams that spawn native trout are threatened by industrial development or overuse. Overuse also threatens downstream water users, said Phillips.
“We have a number of issues related to water quantity and erosion that arise from that kind of disturbance, at that density level, that high up in the mountains,” she said.
Clark said more than $2 million has already been spent in the Castle wilderness to build bridges and move trails away from streams – infrastructure that could become stranded.
He also suggested that government promises to develop trails in another area aren’t credible. Riders have already been told they’ll be losing some trail access in the Livingstone and Porcupine ranges, Clark said.
“We’re not calling for a total reinstatement of all the trail system. We’re calling for being able to use the OHV trails that are already properly constructed.
“There has to be room for everybody in there.”
Up to 1,000 off-highway riders and random campers use the Castle on a summer long weekend, Clark said.
Phillips said the government has been meeting regularly with off-highway riding groups to plan a well-managed and environmentally sustainable network of trails across the province.
“We will make sure there are places to enjoy this activity where it is more compatible with the science.”
The problem has developed because previous Alberta governments refused to step in and allowed a proliferation of uncontrolled trails in the much-loved landscape of mountains and foothills, Phillips said. Conflicts involve not only riders and environmentalists, but municipalities, ranchers, fishing guides and First Nations, she said.
The Castle region has long been controversial. Home to more than 200 species of endangered plants and animals and considered a key link for grizzlies moving north and south, it has also been mined, logged and drilled.
Clark said the Quad Squad wants an extension to the public comment period for the proposed parks.
A town-hall meeting is to be held in Cowley, Alta., on Feb. 7 to discuss the proposed management plan.