|James Tweedie photo|
James Tweedie, Letter to the Editor - The recent coverage of the Off Highway Vehicle Users rallies in the Crowsnest Pass and Lethbridge earlier this month by a local media outlet reads like a libertarian manifesto for the continued hedonistic use of Alberta’s public lands, with complete disregard for the reasons for the protection of a tiny portion of these lands that the Government of Alberta has explicitly provided, in their current Draft Management Plan for the Castle Wildland and Provincial Parks.
Let’s set the record straight. It is precisely because Alberta’s Public Lands Act under previous governments had so clearly failed to address the cumulative impacts of all our human activities in the Castle that the present Government has acted to check that trend before the damage to our vital natural resources becomes irreversible.
In 1974 much of the Castle was placed under a “Crown Reservation” for a future park but by 1993, the Natural Resources Conservation Board concluded that “the cumulative effects of development and disturbance have led to a deterioration in the state of the regional ecosystem, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.”
By 2000 it was clear that the exponential growth of OHV use had become an intractable problem on all public lands along the Eastern Slopes, with about 90% of all Alberta’s Crown Lands being available for unregulated OHV use. At the same time, the legislative framework under the Public Lands Act, the Forestry Act, the Traffic Safety Act and the Occupier Liability Act was completely inadequate to manage these activities.
In an attempt to address some of these shortcomings and in the absence of effective landscape-scale planning since the demise of the Oldman River Regional Planning Authority, the previous Government initiated its Regional Land-Use Planning Framework in 2007. The South Saskatchewan Regional Planning (SSRP) consultation process ran for 5 years.
The motorized user groups and their lobbyists were visible and assertive participants in that process. Their voices were certainly heard. People should be aware that OHV registrations account for less than 6% of the Alberta population and that number includes all those used in industry/forestry and agriculture. “Recreational” numbers are likely less than 4% of the population. This tiny group can inflict damage to our public lands and watersheds out of all proportion to their numbers, as well as jeopardizing the enjoyment of these lands for the vast majority.
The SSRP confirmed the defining importance of the Castle on the regional scale for the health of our streams and rivers, for our wildlife populations and particularly those that are at high risk (notably Grizzly bears and Westslope Cutthroat trout amongst others), for the cultural and spiritual values for First Nations and finally the heritage of early settlement in the area. The Plan identified the inadequacy of the available regulatory framework under the Public Lands Act to protect and advance those values, notably with respect to motorized use by the general public. It contained all the right words for enhancing the protection of the Castle as a special “Conservation Area”, but stopped short of any actions to remedy the on-going cumulative effects.
This land does not “belong” to any of us. We are fortunate to have been gifted or loaned the Castle (or as I believe they might call it, the “Tipi Liner”, with all the protective qualities that the term implies) from our Blackfoot neighbours - the Piikani, Kainai and Siksika Nations - whose notably non-motorized stewardship of it has allowed its natural processes to flourish throughout the many generations past. As today’s ultimate custodian of these lands, but recognizing those First Nations’ cultural values and Alberta’s Treaty obligations, the present Government of Alberta has chosen to “do the right thing”, as Premier Notley has put it, to act with the interests of our future generations in mind, rather than be cowed, as were previous governments, by the self-serving rhetoric that is voiced by Off Highway Vehicle users.