Fairy tales spread about land access

If you’re an off-highway vehicle user, you may have heard that government insiders bought land at Castle Mountain just before new provincial parks were announced for the area. That scandalous tale went briefly viral on OHV social media sites.

Only thing is, it’s not true. I checked. It’s fake news: a lie.

Special interest groups have always propagandized, exaggerated events and invented destructive rumours to advance their causes. But in an era of digital social media, fake news has become weaponized.

Our only real defence is to shine the light of truth into every dark corner of public discourse. It matters that we do, because democracy must always stand on a foundation of fairness: an engaged citizenry committed to honest debate.

Consider the Alberta government’s efforts to restore environmental health and social equity to the forests and streams of the eastern slopes — our public lands.

Many baby boomers remember family camping trips, trout fishing and healthy outdoor explorations our families used to enjoy in those peaceful, green places. But laissez-faire mismanagement of our public land over recent decades coincided with the growth of OHV use by a well-heeled minority. OHVs are heavy, powerful and fast. Their lugged tires shred vegetation, erode soil and create drainage gullies.

Well-designed trails can reduce, but not eliminate, the damage. But we don’t have those trails.

Instead, off-roaders use seismic cutlines, old logging roads, cattle trails and any other linear feature they can find in the landscape.

A web of eroding, weed-infested, noisy trails now riddles our headwaters. Some OHV users try to behave responsibly, but damaged land and lax enforcement has also bred a culture of aggressive vandals. Most Albertans now look elsewhere for quiet family recreation — mostly to parks that can barely cope with the demand.

Organized off-highway vehicle groups argue that the solution is better-engineered trails and more enforcement of existing rules. They say there is room for all out there. The government seems finally to be giving them what they say they want, but has reaped a harvest of anger and fake news instead of thanks.

Two years ago, the government hired 23 new enforcement officers and gave them expanded powers. Subsequent land-use planning for the Livingstone and Porcupine Hills areas has focused on laying out a well-engineered motorized trail network in places that don’t conflict with wildlife, fish and other users. The new Castle parks restored a small part of the Eastern Slopes to the large majority of Albertan families who prefer non-motorized recreation. Reducing motorized use elsewhere offers the chance that quiet users may soon be able to enjoy the rest of their public lands again too.

In other words, the government appears to be making room for all users, increasing enforcement and putting properly engineered trails in place, just what OHV groups asked for.

But the fake news machine is in full throttle: besides nasty rumours, some off-roaders have posted ads and internet memes warning that all OHV use will soon be shut down.

Some assert that dark U.S. money is funding an elitist campaign to close public lands completely. Others say that the government’s science and analysis is fraudulent.

When truth won’t advance one’s cause, lies become the weapon of choice. Engaged and active citizenship is our only defence.

The government will soon seek public comment on draft land-use plans for our eastern slopes. Albertans would do well to take the time to form their own opinions. Only independent, critical thinking can protect our democracy, and our public lands, from self-interested minorities and their fake news.

Kevin Van Tighem is author of Heart Waters/Sources of the Bow River and Our Place/Changing the Nature of Alberta.

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