Castle parks management plan open house held in Pincher Creek

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Alberta Environment and Parks hosted an open house at the Pincher Creek Community Centre on Friday March 10 to present information to the public and gather feedback about the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park Draft Management Plan, one of three such events being held in the region.

On January 20 of this year a press conference was held at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village in Pincher Creek. At that event Premier Rachel Notley, Minister of Environment and Parks and Minister Responsible for the Climate Change Office Shannon Phillips, and Piikani First Nation Chief Stanley Charles Grier announced the official release of the draft version of the plan. If enacted as it stands the plan will first limit and then eliminate OHVs from the Castle parks.

*A number of other restrictions related to acceptable uses will also be applied, limiting (but not eliminating) auto accessible camping, mountain biking, equestrian use, snowmobiling to designated areas and trails. Hunting, hiking, climbing and caving, water-based recreation, and nature appreciation will be permitted and regulated by currently existing Provincial Parks regulations. According to the Alberta Parks faq, “Existing uses, such as hunting and off-highway vehicles, would be managed to ensure appropriate use and public safety.”

Environmentalists were very pleased with the January 20 announcement, off highway vehicle (OHV) users were very displeased, and many area ranchers and business people expressed concern. Since the draft plan was released rallies and meetings have been held all over southwestern Alberta by advocates and dissenters alike.

Idea board at Pincher Creek open house
On March 1 the Alberta government announced a new Southern Alberta Recreation Management Planning Process, which “involves public information sessions and stakeholder meetings to examine wider conservation and land-use issues in the southern Eastern Slopes, Castle parks and surrounding areas.”
Stakeholders involved in March 8 Crowsnest Pass sessions included the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association, Crowsnest Pass mayor and council, Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad, Crow Snow Riders, grazing leaseholders, Hillcrest Fish and Game Association, area ranchers, MD of Ranchlands, and the Rocky Mountain Forest Range Association. Another open house was held at the MD of Ranchlands office in Chain Lakes Provincial Park the day after the Pincher Creek event, and another is scheduled for March 17 at the Blairmore Elks Hall.

During the January 20th announcement of the draft management plan a 60 day public consultation period was announced. The Wildrose Party asked for the public consultation period to be extended for an additional 60 days. The Alberta Government announced a thirty-day extension. Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier (Wildrose) responded that “Even with 30 more days, the timeline for concerned Albertans to provide their feedback is far too short for adequate consultation to be done. Many of those in favour of the plan say there has been enough consultation. At the open house in Pincher Creek author, songwriter, and environmentalist Sid Marty said “As far as I’m concerned, we have been consulting for 30, 40 years. It’s time to just get on with getting these parks up and running, and protecting the watershed. So, I don’t see why we need anymore consultation.”

Alberta Parks South Region Director Peter Swain

At the Pincher Creek open house the three local press outlets (including this one) spoke with South Region Director for Alberta Parks Peter Swain. He said the purpose of the open houses was two-fold. “One is to collect as much information as we can, and that gets incorporated into the management planning process as well as… there is a strong desire by this local community of the Crowsnest Pass and Pincher Creek to be heard in kind of a face-to-face manner.”

“People have some very, very strong opinions on this matter.” The open house featured a number of different information stations and feedback opportunities placed around the hall. “Different formats serve different purposes. What we have seen is a very broad diversity of opinion.”

“It’s not about us telling people things, it’s about helping us make sure they have the information they need, and then telling us. We didn’t want a talking head, we wanted to hear them talk.”

Swain said there were over 60 meetings with various groups before December of last year, and there have been 44,000 comments made via the government’s online survey. “We are not lacking from input from the public. That’s an extraordinary number of people giving us information.”

“That is partially what has driven the change in the management plant that we’ve come out, for clarification is because we’ve had some very clear input from people some things wanted to be changed… as a result from that feedback.”

“There is a very broad diversity of opinions. We live in a very complex society.”

“Typically, we have a roll-up, and the more responses you get, the longer it takes to get the roll-up because of course it needs to be anonymized,… so we will have a roll-up, the same way we had a roll-up from the previous one which was released.”

“The final outcome is informed by all of this. It is quite a complex process, again, one of our outcomes here is we want people to feel like we have heard them, so that when we make decisions it’s not because we weren’t listening to people. We have heard the concerns, we have mitigated appropriately or as much as we are able to.”

“It’s no surprise that OHV users have got the most concerns, and they are, frankly, the most impacted from what is proposed in the draft plans, random camping is closely correlated with OHV use, but not exclusively, and that is one of the unknowns we have. We don’t know how many random campers versus OHV and random campers. So we are hearing OHV and random campers are two of the hot topics, for sure.”

“We have had some excellent meetings with the ranching community and we have adjusted some of our wording, appropriately. We really didn’t change any of the intent, but we made it a little more clear.”

“The ranchers shouldn’t see much impact at all. Ranching is a really important activity on the landscape.”

“Parks is no stranger to grazing. We have far more grazing in Cypress Hills Provincial Park, for example.”

“I think we’ve got it right, from the ranchers prospective, and we look forward to working with them, in the future.”

Swain said the plan would likely result in more grasslands, not less, through controlled burns. “You are going to see more grazing in certain areas of the park, in the future because that grassland is one of the most valuable ecological areas that we have.”

When asked about possible restrictions on horseback riding, Swain said “The intent for horseback riding is under the Wildland Park and the Provincial Parks Act. You can either have horse trails, or horse areas. Depending on what the usages of an area, will have both. We use horses all the time for our work, with the conservation officers and the biologists.”

“The recreational aspects of what in the future of the park have been separate from this management plan piece.”

“We can say unequivocally yes, there is a place for horseback riding and equestrian groups in here,” Swain said, later clarifying that horseback riding will be restricted but not banned. “Within Wildland Parks and Provincial Parks there are typical activities that will take place. Horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, walking, all of these things are… not contentious at all. When they are planned out properly, they work very well.”

“Our job as Park Managers is we look at conservation values, preservation values, outdoor recreation is one of our key deliverables. We have to deliver on outdoor recreation. So we find the ways to make them both work. It is not an either/or question. It’s an ‘and’ question. How do we make this and that work together.”

When I asked him if there was any chance OHV access will be allowed in the future (past the planned phase out date) he said “This is what a draft management plan is about. So we’re collecting all that information right now.”

Swain said the Castle Mountain Resort footprint will be excluded from the plan. “There is private land there as well as public land, and they have been excluded from the park so they are surrounded by wildland park on two sides, and just a tiny bit of the front is provincial park.” Accommodation development at the resort, such as a hotel (and Castle Mountain Resort has been working toward such a development), may be a different issue. “That’s held under the Public Lands Act, and the area structure plans for the municipality. We manage that. We have said in this plan we are looking at pushing development out of the park, for hotels and that sort of thing, and we want those to be, the economic benefits to sit in the municipalities. That’s one of them. That’s part of the MD of Ranchlands.”

“It was part of the survey. It said ‘What do you think’ and the answer back was pretty strong. People were in the favour of having those developments in the municipalities, and not in the parks.”

“The road is actually in the Provincial Park. We have lots of paved roads in Provincial Parks.”

“I am really appreciative of the efforts, especially on short notice, that the folks here have done. I won’t kid you we have had some very hard conversations. They have not always been easy conversations here. And that’s okay, that’s what this is for. I really appreciate the tone that is brought to these conversations. Though hard, has been very respectful.”

MLA Pat Stier at Pincher Creek open house
Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier

I spoke with area MLA Pat Stier before attending the open house. Stier has been a fierce critic of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) and the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park Draft Management Plan. In fact, his criticism of the SSRP helped get him elected over PC incumbent Evan Berger in 2012. He defeated Berger again in 2015, Berger went on to chair the Land-use Framework MLA Committee.

“The Castle kind of blew up here about September of 2015 when they made their first announcement over at the Stone’s Throw Cafe in Blairmore,” said Stier. adding there was no public announcement, invited guests only, local media was not invited, and local municipalities were not informed. “It caused quite a furor of controversy everywhere in respect to future use in most respects, whether it was camping, hunting, fishing… as you know,” noting that announcement was made within five months of the NDP being elected. “They never had campaigned on that, never said anything about it.” Stier said he heavily cross examined the Minister Phillips about it in the legislature.

“We had a published list of what they determined to be permitted uses in their new strategy. It’s a two page document. All the things they have now banned in this most recent announcement, they had included as permitted uses. Random camping, OHVs, etc.” Stier said that from the original announcement in 2015 to the January 20, 2017 announcement there was a serious lack of consultation. “Nobody other than a select few people were consulted over that period of time. The end users who would be most directly affected were never consulted.” He said the NDP were using ‘It is easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission’ as a strategy. “Is that the way they normally operate? If it is, we are in real trouble.”

“Can you actually trust someone if they have done these things for very long? It leaves you to wonder what will happen next.”

Stier said a lot of people have moved to this area specifically for the recreational opportunities. “There has to be some sort of a balance between those folks who choose to use these areas for their own particular needs. Parks are for everyone. It seems a little bit questionable to me that a government would come along without talking to the end users and suddenly make a whole bunch of rules in a draft management plan and tell them there will be a 30 day window for consultation, but oh, by the way, here are some things we are going to enforce now.”

“I think people’s voices had to be heard.”

“We don’t legislate this. The Minister under the Parks Act has total authority.”

“Just as they might have some adjustments in this draft plan now, already made because of these meetings, hopefully there’s going to be more.”

“We (the Wildrose Party) are there to try to ensure that government does what the government should do, listen to the taxpayers, listen to the recreation people, listen to the environmental people.”

“This is impacting everyone across Alberta.”

Stier also said one person who contacted him regarding this set of open houses would be coming from Quebec to express concerns an behalf of Canadian OHV users and manufacturers.

Stier suggested better enforcement of existing regulations would be a better move. “If you didn’t have police on the highways, it would be a madhouse on highways. Think of the chaos if you didn’t have enforcement in most activities. Bring in more enforcement, and allow some people to enjoy some of these activities.”

Stier said he wasn’t opposed to environmental concerns being raised in regards to the Castle area. “I think it’s important that we have people in the environmental movement who keep coming to the table and reminding us of us what is important, because there is only one Earth, only one world, and these people provide insight… They do help us make sure we do keep on the right path, and that is so vital in our society today.”

Stier attended the Pincher Creek open house event, and said he wanted to talk to his constituents about their concerns there. “When I go to the house next week after seeing what has taken place, and what I am hearing, I will convey that to the government, and through questioning the ministry about what they are going to do next, and why, I will see if I can get some more answers.”

Castle parks concerns raised at Pincher Creek Town Council meeting

During the regular meeting of the Town of Pincher Creek’s council on Monday, February 27, approximately eight citizens indicated they were in attendance due to an interest in the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park Management Plan Letter of Concern on the agenda. The first to address council was Mrs. Nancy Tripp. “We have been watching this saga in the Castle area since 1990,” she said. She and her husband Wilbur are seniors who no longer hike or camp but “do believe in strong protection of our new provincial parks, with minimum further disturbance or damage to plants, water, and wildlife.” as they stated in a separate letter to the Pincher Creek Voice earlier in the week.

Councillors and a number of citizens in the gallery discussed various concerns including: horseback access, the use of service vehicles, water and endangered species protection, how the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park Draft Management Plan fits with the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan and Castle River Access Management Plan, enforcement, what effect restrictions will have on those with disabilities who currently use vehicles to access the area, logging restrictions, grazing rights, the removal of OHVs potentially creating a domino effect of pushing users to other areas after trails have been developed, and potential damage to commercial enterprises that rely upon revenue from OHV users.

In response to the above, at their March 1 Committee of the Whole meeting council decided to send a letter of concern to the Provincial Government regarding the management plan.

  • an earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that several kinds of activities would be eliminated from the Castle Parks, activities that will actually be permitted under existing regulations, or permitted within specified areas. I apologize for the error.