Debate over land use plan focuses on OHV use

Province looks for public input on draft plan for Livingstone-Porcupine Hills region in southwestern Alberta

Supporters of a draft plan to manage and protect the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills region of southern Alberta made their views known April 9 at a news conference where they articulated the benefits.

Albertans have until April 26 to provide feedback on two plans tabled earlier this month by the provincial government: the land footprint report and the recreation management plan.

The area addressed includes the Whaleback, Porcupine Hills, Crowsnest Pass and Upper Oldman River, which feeds into the South Saskatchewan River system.

It is a popular region for camping, hiking, fishing and off-highway vehicle use, and also includes mining, grazing and logging operations. Those multiple uses put demands on the landscape, which the province seeks to address in the draft plans.

“The Livingstone-Porcupine Hills area is a tremendous public resource, and engaging Albertans in the planning process is essential to getting the best plans possible,” Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips said when releasing the draft plans.

“We need plans that protect the region’s headwaters, biodiversity, esthetic beauty, and cultural and historic values, while accommodating an appropriate mix of uses, including enhanced recreation activities.”

Members of the Porcupine Hills Coalition, who called the news conference, said they are generally in support of the plans.

“These draft plans are about setting limits, limits that should have been set years ago,” said biologist Lorne Fitch, who has advocated for reduced off-highway vehicle use in the region and recognition of its fragility and vulnerability under current use.

Off-highway vehicle activity has been a major point of contention as the plans were developed. Recreational off-highway vehicle users have protested a proposed reduction in motorized access to the region.

However, curtailing off-highway vehicles was a focus at the coalition event.

Harry Welsch, who ranches in the Porcupine Hills and uses grazing allotments in the Beaver Creek forestry area, represented landowners and grazing allotment holders on the committee that developed the draft recreation plan.

Welsch said damage from previous off-highway vehicle activity in the region is evident.

“There’s so many trails and so much abuse that has taken place in the Porcupine Hills,” said Welsch.

“The Beaver Creek forestry has been abused, greatly abused by the off-highway vehicles. There’s trails everywhere and it’s not been policed. It’s been pretty much a free for all for the bikes…. No one else wants to be there when the OHVs are there because of the noise and the disturbance.”

However, Welsch said the draft plans do allow for off-highway vehicle activity in specific areas and trails.

“All we’re discouraging is the abuse,” he said.

“We think with designated trails and limited access so that we don’t have hundreds of people out there at the same time, I think we can work together very well.

“It’s public land and ATVs or off-highway vehicles are part of what some people want to do, so we just need to figure out a way that they can do what they want to do without disturbing what the other recreation people want to do.”

Welsch said he is pleased about continued use of crown land for grazing because it is important to maintain biodiversity.

Ted Smith, a rancher and coalition member, said he likes the idea of a trail system for off-highway vehicles, although the cost of building and then maintaining it will be high.

“I don’t think the users could afford to do it. I think they will quit before they do that. I think (the money) will have to come from the province.”

Fitch agreed that the cost of closing a large number of existing trails and establishing a new, designated off-highway vehicle trail network remains a big question. Although the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association has stated its willingness to implement a payment model, Fitch said the costs might be too high for it to manage.

“The Alberta government seems poised to understand that there needs to be some opportunities provided for OHV users. They seem to be poised to be able to fund this,” said Fitch.

The draft plans arose from the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, which was developed in 2014 under the previous government. That plan established a vision for the region to balance economic, environmental and societal goals.

Livingstone-Porcupine Hills was noted in the SSRP as a priority for such planning, and the NDP government has undertaken several measures to create parks along with new rules and requirements.

Fitch said a change in government has potential to affect plans.

“There’s always a risk that these plans can be politicized and politicized for all the wrong reasons,” he said.

“If there is a change in government and even if the present government maintains itself, I think we have to be watchful that they maintain the commitments made in these plans to Albertans.”

Goals outlined in the draft recreation plan include:

  • Establishing a designated motorized trail system that meets specified access limits.
  • Developing guidelines on sites for recreation infrastructure, including trails, camping and day use.
  • Improving recreation infrastructure, including installation of appropriate water crossings and upgrading trails.
  • Providing enhanced camping opportunities as resources permit.
  • Formalizing existing and desired trails and supporting infrastructure for non-motorized recreation activities.
  • Enhancing public use of recreation infrastructure.
  • Enabling nature-based tourism opportunities where desired and appropriate.

The draft plans and survey to provide input can be found at talkaep.alberta.ca/livingstone-porcupine-hills-footprint-and-recreation-planning.

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