Opinions clash over Bighorn parks proposal

Many Alberta residents are worried that the plan would negatively affect their livelihoods, while other see benefits

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE, Alta. — Opinions over the future of Bighorn Country clashed last month when residents met with government officials over potential changes to the proposed wildlife and recreation area.

Many residents who live in the proposed parks area, which is situated between Jasper and Banff national parks in western Alberta, raised concerns at a meeting in Rocky Mountain House Dec. 17, but some expressed support over the proposal.

“I think some people are worried about change, and change is difficult,” said Amy Leitch, who lives in town.

“But if the proposal does go forward, I think it will meet a lot of people’s needs, which are currently lacking.”

The provincial government is currently getting feedback before it potentially moves forward with a $40 million plan for Bighorn Country.

The proposal would see the creation of new provincial parks and recreation areas, as well as upgrades to campsites, trails, parking lots and staging areas in an effort to improve wildlife management and recreation.

Current forestry and energy-extraction activities, as well as hunting and random camping, would still be allowed. Existing grazing leases would also be honoured.

However, despite the province’s efforts to inform people that impacts to recreation will be minimal, some residents worry changes could be made at a later time.

“I just don’t trust the government,” said Jim Pearson, who is a member of the Clearwater Trails Initiative.

Pearson pointed to issues with consultation over recent changes to the Castle parks in southwestern Alberta.

He and others at the meeting charged that the government promised there wouldn’t be changes to designated off-highway vehicle trails in the Castle area, but now the province is closing off some of those trails for environmental and conservation purposes.

“I’m worried that might happen here,” said Del Whitford, who runs a horseback riding trail in the Hummingbird recreation area with his wife, Judy.

“We’ve been running the trail for a long time. It’s been our life. So when all these plans come forward, you’re worried and you’re not sure how it’s going to affect you.”

The province has said the designated trails currently within the park would remain in place until consultation on recreational management is complete.

There would be another round of consultations over creating new trails in areas of the region that are currently without trails, though there are sensitive areas, such as bull-trout spawning tributaries, that would need to be protected from off-highway vehicle users.

As for other concerns, people questioned if now is the best time to spend money on parks given the province’s fiscal situation. Others wondered if the impacts could become worse if more people are drawn to the area.

However, during the meeting, there was a sense from some residents that Bighorn Country is in need of care.

The area tends to get busy in the summer with people parking in ditches or leaving garbage and toilet paper behind at campsites because there are no facilities.

“I have spent lots of time in Nordegg on the long weekends and things get out of control. Accountability for folks would be a good thing,” said Blaine Krawczyk.

“I think with some people there is a real sense of entitlement, and maybe that’s where their hesitation is coming from. Lots of money and maintenance has gone into current trails, so I understand their frustration.”

As well, some residents said there are few wildlife officers to ensure people are abiding by the rules. There is also little signage to direct and inform people.

“ATV users are trespassing on reserve lands and when we bring it up, everyone just looks the other way,” said Seona Abraham from the Bighorn Stoney First Nation, who was gathering information to bring back to her community.

“The main concern is this might open up more people out into the country where right now it’s too busy out there. Damage has been done and we don’t want there to be more.”

To ensure the parks are maintained well, the province would hire an additional five to eight conservation officers, as well as seasonal staff. The old ranger house in the area would be re-opened.

Mayor Tammy Burke of Rocky Mountain House and Reeve Jim Duncan of Clearwater County said they are still analyzing the proposal before they make a decision on whether to support it.

The province will continue to consult Albertans on the Bighorn plan until Jan. 31. Town hall meeting dates, as well as a survey, can be viewed and taken online at talkaep.alberta.ca

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