[Note: The following was first published in the March 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
Anyone who has been to the southwest corner of our province is aware of the beauty of what is often called the “Crown of the Continent,” the portion of the Rocky Mountains that straddles the Montana/Alberta/BC borders. Two of the jewels of that crown abut one another at the US/Canada border: Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana. The two parks form the International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserves some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes in North America. These parks also protect a host of wildlife species, providing core populations that supplement their respective populations outside the parks.
Unfortunately, the comparison between the parks ends there. If you look at a map of Glacier Park and the surrounding territory in Montana, you see a range of protected areas from national forests to national wilderness areas that form a buffer between the national park and high use developed areas. A major difference between these protected areas and the national park is that hunting is allowed in the national forests and wilderness areas. While off-road motorized travel is not allowed in the national park or the wilderness areas, it is allowed in the national forests but only on designated trails. The national forests are also open to some logging and other resource extraction. The result is a variety of outdoor recreational experiences, from wilderness isolation through hunting and fishing on foot or horseback to limited use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs), with minimal conflict between them. The bonus is that streams and habitats are protected, producing quality fish and wildlife populations.
In Alberta on the other hand, much of the crown lands outside of Waterton Lakes National Park have been open to considerable resource development and pretty much unrestricted OHV use. The result has been degraded landscapes affecting many species of wildlife, silt entering streams where it impacts fish habitat, and hanging culverts on development roads preventing movement of fish.
Why such a difference? It boils down to the different ways lands were divided between the states and provinces. The lands I described in Montana are federal lands that have been managed with a strong conservation ethic that was laid down in the U.S. by Theodore Roosevelt and others in the early 20th century. Today hunters, anglers, outfitters, hikers, and environmentalists all ban together to oppose anyone who might wish to reduce the restrictions or indeed sell off this heritage. They realize the future of their culture and lifestyles are tied up in these lands.
In Alberta, our history is different. Much of the federal crown land, outside the national parks, was transferred to the province in the Natural Resources Transfer Act of 1930. That allowed Alberta to take control of the forested land and its resources for the benefit of Albertans. However, governments were often more interested in short-term gain than long-term conservation goals. The one exception was the creation of Willmore Wilderness Park north of Jasper National Park in 1959, although it was significantly reduced in size over the years to accommodate resource exploitation.
The Peter Lougheed government did develop A Policy for the Management of the Eastern Slopes in 1977 to protect the headwaters areas of our major rivers. However, subsequent governments watered down that policy and what regulations remain are often not enforced.
In the 20th century the concept of “multiple use” was what drove much wildlands policy in government forests outside the national parks and wilderness areas on both sides of the border. This worked OK when the demand for resources would allow the various uses of our forests to coexist. But in the latter decades demand has increased, and the development of OHVs has allowed more people to go deeper into the wilderness, many with apparent little regard for the destruction their vehicles cause. As people watched the degradation continue they called for more protection.
These were the issues our new government faced during the public consultation on the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan. It was obvious that steps needed to be taken to protect not only our headwaters but also the ecosystems that support the diversity of fish and wildlife and our potable water supply. That’s why the government announced last January the creation of the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park north of Waterton Lakes National Park. They issued a draft management plan and have requested public input to that plan until March 20 (on March 1, 2017, the Alberta Government announced the extension of the deadline to April 19). Here are some brief highlights of that plan.
Castle Provincial Park
This park encompasses 25,501 hectares west of Pincher Creek where the major branches of the Castle River come together. This is where “front country” facilities will be maintained, such as campgrounds, day use areas, and nature and park interpretation.
Castle Wildland Provincial Park
The Wildland Park encompasses 79,678 hectares stretching from the northern boundary of Waterton Lakes National Park up the backbone of the Rocky Mountains west of Castle Provincial Park, including the headwater streams of the Castle River. It will provide opportunities for high quality “low-impact backcountry and wilderness experiences.” Hiking trails and backcountry huts will be developed to allow foot or horse access without compromising the natural integrity of the park.
Both parks will accommodate anglers. Conservation of native species will be the top priority with emphasis on catch-and-release. Use of bait will be discouraged to reduce hooking mortality.
Hunting will be allowed in both parks. Although hunting is usually not allowed in (non-wildland) provincial parks, it will be in Castle Provincial Park to control species numbers and reduce human conflicts. As in most wildland parks in Alberta, hunting will be allowed in Castle Wildland Provincial Park because the activity aligns with the purpose of wildlands parks, allowing low-impact nature-based recreation.
For similar reasons, trapping will be allowed to continue in both parks, including use of OHVs to conduct business. However, some adjustments might have to be made to reduce conflicts with other users.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is that of OHV use. There are several designated OHV trails in the area of these two parks, but unfortunately users often left those trails and cut their own unauthorized trails that caused a lot of damage to habitats, streams and landscapes. Several scientific studies have shown that OHVs negatively affect wildlife behavior and thus are not compatible with the conservation goals of both parks (see the piece “Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use” fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch posted on my blog).
The management plan calls for the phasing out of all recreational OHV use in both parks over the next three to five years. Effective immediately, OHV use will be restricted to designated trails only and not allowed south of Highway 774 (Castle Mountain Resort Road). Programs will begin to reclaim the unauthorized trails and repair the damage.
The OHV user community is understandably upset about this closure but it was something that should have been done decades ago before OHV use became widespread. OHVs have their place in outdoor recreation but only on trails and in areas that can sustain that kind of traffic, not in crucial headwaters and habitats.
The Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park are two new jewels in the Crown of the Continent. They will help ensure Alberta keeps its wild heritage.
Comments are always welcome (below).