Controversy over Bighorn
By Tyler Klinkhammer
with files from The Mountaineer
The re-designation of the Bighorn Backcountry has sparked some controversy across the province.
While certain stakeholders have been invited to consultation meetings, the lack of public consultation thus far has been seen as troubling by many.
Many Albertans have been waiting to have their say regarding the controversial decision.
After much outcry regarding the lack of public consultation the NDP government has announced they will hold public meetings across Central Alberta later in December and January.
The new proposal would combine and change many borders of the current area.
The Bighorn Backcountry, in its current form, is a 5,000-hectare area of Crown land, split into six public land use zones (PLUZ), each with its own rules and regulations regarding tourism, OHV and equestrian use, camping and boating activities.
The new plan proposed by the NDP would combine several of the PLUZs into one large area called the West Country PLUZ, which extends from Sundre to Drayton Valley, following Hwy. 22 as its eastern border. The Kiska/Wilson PLUZ would remain largely unchanged except for a resizing of the border. The new Bighorn wildland provincial park would straddle the western border of the Kiska/Wilson PLUZ and parts of the West Country PLUZ.
Three new provincial parks would also be created; one near the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River, another along the river just west of the Bighorn Dam, and the third on the eastern border of the Ya Ha Tinda ranch.
Several groups, including the Alberta Hikers Association, Yellowstone 2 Yukon, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society have advocated for converting the area to a wilderness park, arguing that the new status would give the government more authority to control and protect the area.
The change of designation could mean certain restrictions on off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, camping activities and commercial development.
Currently OHV use is planned to continue in all areas as long as users remain on designated trails.
Jason Nixon, MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, was critical of the lack of transparency regarding the process thus far.
“I was disappointed to see the government follow that same track,” he said. Nixon said that with “pressure from the MLAs office in partnership with our local municipalities we have been able to get them to commit to open meetings now, which is a big step forward. It’s disappointing that we need to go through all of that pressure, but this needs to be a public process where everyone gets to participate.”
In an interview with The Mountaineer’s publisher, Glen Mazza, on Nov. 26, Nixon also condemned the government for ignoring the recommendations made by the North Saskatchewan Regional Advisory Council (RAC).
In May 2018, the findings by the RAC in regards to the future of the Bighorn Backcountry and the rest of the North Saskatchewan watershed area were released to the public.
The RAC was launched in 2014 and the report was completed in 2015, but the results were not released by the Ministry of Environment and Parks (AEP) until earlier this year.
The government initiative was created to develop land use policies with the goal of allowing Albertans to responsibly recreate on the PLUZ’s, while preserving the ecosystems within the North Saskatchewan watershed area.
The RAC ultimately found that the current model of governance of the Bighorn Backcountry area is adequate, and should stand as an example as AEP looks at how it should manage other parts of the green area in the region for recreation and biodiversity outcomes.
The “green area” refers to the unsettled portion of the province, primarily forest lands not available for agricultural development other than grazing.
The RAC did not recommend the creation of a provincial park.
Nixon said that even with public consultations, he has little faith that the NDP would take the opinions they hear into consideration.
“What we saw happen in other areas, particularly the Castle, the consultation process was completely ignored,” said Nixon. “They started out saying ‘don’t worry about the access’ then slowly that access was taken away piece by piece. I think that’s what people are most worried about right now once that becomes a park.”
According to Nixon, during the consultation phase for the Castle region plan, communities were given assurances that forestry, oil and gas and OHV use would all continue unimpeded, but once the plan was approved that quickly changed.
Spray Lakes sawmill was shut down shortly after the approval of the plan, according to Nixon.
That sentiment was mirrored by Cal Rakach. Rakach has worked extensively to build OHV trails in the West Country.
Rakach said that he supports the idea of combining the area into one big PLUZ since it makes it easier to impose and understand regulations on land use, but that he’s concerned that access to recreation activities will be lost.
“We have to look at this whole thing: the Bighorn Backcountry as it is now and how that connects into the new proposed PLUZ, which is a good thing because a PLUZ is a big toolbox. That’s why this business of going to parks causes heartburn because making it a park serves no purpose. Everything they’re proposing to do out there can be done now [under current regulations],” he said.
“We played this game in Castle and it didn’t turn out so well,” he said. “They put the toolbox in place, but then they found every reason to close trails. They went from 700 kilometres there to 130 kilometres.”
“There isn’t a lot of trust that they’re going to do it differently than they always do it,” he added. “The question now is ‘how are they going to execute this’, because history is not in the governments favour that it will be done fairly.”