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Protesters rally against Alberta’s proposed phase-out of off-highway vehicles in Castle area

Click to play video: 'People gather in Edmonton to oppose OHV phase-out plan in Castle area' People gather in Edmonton to oppose OHV phase-out plan in Castle area
WATCH ABOVE: People gathered at a large rally in Edmonton on Saturday to speak out against the government's plan to phase out the use of off-highway vehicles in the ecologically sensitive Castle area of southwestern Alberta. Shallima Maharaj reports – Mar 25, 2017

At least 200 people converged on the grounds of the Alberta legislature on Saturday to protest the Notley government’s plan to phase out the use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in two provincial parks in the southwest corner of the province.

In January, the government announced it would expand parkland in the ecologically sensitive Castle area, which includes Castle Provincial Park and the Castle Wildlands Provincial Park. According to the province, the move preserves 103,000 hectares of land southwest of Calgary. At the time, the government said it also intended to take further steps to protect the land, including to eventually phase out the use of OHVs.

READ MORE: Alberta to expand Castle area parks, phase out off-highway vehicles

Watch below: In January 2017, the government of Alberta announced final boundaries for a pair of protected areas in southern Alberta. At the time, Quinn Campbell reported that while the plan is to protect the Castle area’s biological diversity, the province is also banning off-highway vehicles within the new boundaries.

Click to play video: 'Alberta to expand Castle area parks, phase out off-highway vehicles' Alberta to expand Castle area parks, phase out off-highway vehicles
Alberta to expand Castle area parks, phase out off-highway vehicles – Jan 20, 2017

“These are families here,” said Garett Schmidt, who organized Saturday’s rally. “They’re not abusers of the environment.”

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“We don’t want people wrecking the environment we love. If we take our families to it, it’s because we love that environment, not because we want to destroy it.”

Schmidt said not all people who ride all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and other OHVs should be punished because of a few “bad apples” and added that with well-designed plans and trails, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts could be “stewards of those trails.”

“This has been a very exclusive implementation of a plan. All that we want is a proper consultation to be done.”

READ MORE: OHV users shut down main artery in Blairmore for rally

Watch below: On march 11, 2017, Joe Scarpelli filed this report about yet another OHV rally in Alberta. This time protesters shut down streets in Blairemore, Alta. to make their point.

Click to play video: 'OHV users shut down main artery in Blairmore for rally' OHV users shut down main artery in Blairmore for rally
OHV users shut down main artery in Blairmore for rally – Mar 11, 2017

“Albertans are great stewards of the land,” said Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean, who also attended the demonstration. “And we will take care of it.

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“We need a balance – a practical, common-sense approach where we can continue to use the trails and do random camping.”

Protester Lyle Moorehead said he believes a small minority of OHV users cause damage to the land in the Castle area and that he approaches people when he sees them throwing garbage around in natural areas or destroying the environment.

“We want to try to keep these areas open and keep families out recreating rather than doing troublesome stuff at home, Moorehead said. “We can’t go to the campsites… because they’re booked right through. As soon as it’s February, they’re booked. So the random camping is huge.”

“Nearly a million people moved to Alberta in the last decade, leading to incredible pressures in the Castle area,” the Ministry of Environment and Parks said in a statement Saturday. “This has also led to significant damage to ranching fences, to spawning grounds and to the spread of garbage in pristine wilderness.”

The statement also suggested the problem was more than just a few people, as some of the protesters argued.

“Last year, Alberta spent more than $10.4 million on enforcement on public lands and parks. Officers made nearly 80,000 public contacts and found nearly 7,000 infractions. The majority of those involved illegal camping and off-highway vehicle use.”

The NDP government began holding information sessions about the proposed ban of OHVs in the area on March 10 and plan to continue until April 19.

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READ MORE: Government of Alberta seeks public input on conservation plan for Castle area

“We’ve heard from many Albertans who camp, fish, hunt and hike with their families in southwest Alberta,” Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said earlier this month. “They want the Castle parks protected for future generations, but they also want clarity about what takes place in surrounding areas.”

The proposed OHV ban was immediately questioned by the Alberta Off-Highway Association (AOHA) when it was announced. The organization proposed a counter-plan it argued would protect the environment, while still allowing off-road vehicles in the area. The AOHA suggested trail users could closely co-operate with government to manage, design and repair trails in a sustainable way.

“We want a collaborative approach and for the government to reach out to the associations that look after this,” Schmidt said. “That’s the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

“(Protesters are) here today with their families to support what they believe to be is an infringement on their rights,” Jean said Saturday. “They’re here to say, ‘Please Rachel Notley, don’t do this. You’re taking away our culture, you’re taking away our way of life.'”

However, other groups like the Southern Alberta Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the area has already sustained “significant” damage because of a lack of planning from governments over the years and that “some areas that are just too sensitive to support this land use at all.”

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David Wasserman, former chair of the Alberta Hiking Association, was at Saturday’s demonstration to support the government plan and represent the Outdoor Recreation Council of Alberta and “quiet recreationalists.”

“We find that the off-highway vehicles and other motorized transportation in the backcountry, such as the dirtbikes, interfere with the enjoyment and actually drive us away,” Wasserman said. “These people have been speaking about the importance of getting more people into the backcountry, yet what they plan to do will actually drive a lot of people away.”

Below is a list of proposal put forward by the NDP government as it drafts a plan for the region:

· Alberta hunters will be allowed to recover game through limited use of trail networks during hunting season.
· Alberta ranchers will see grazing permits managed by range lands staff. The province will continue to work with permit holders on a formalized agreement.
· Alberta anglers will see Alberta’s fish populations protected through fish-recovery strategies, including the threatened Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout.
· Albertans with mobility issues, including the elderly, will be given special consideration to ensure park access is inclusive.
· No changes to the current state-of-trail access will be made in the upcoming year for off-highway vehicles use. The focus will be on closing illegal trails and creating proper signage.
· There will be increased enforcement to prevent irresponsible activities in the Castle parks.
· The revised plan will include maintaining northern access and routes into the park from the Crowsnest Pass.

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The Castle area in southwestern Alberta, where the Rocky Mountains meet the prairie, is renowned for its beauty and biodiversity and is home to more than 200 threatened species.

-With files from Shallima Maharaj, News Talk 770’s Alyssa Julie and The Canadian Press

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