I’m an Albertan, one who grew up playing and working in the Bighorn, an area between Jasper and Banff national parks.
I’ve watched the proliferation of land uses grow to the point that the cumulative effect threatens all that the Bighorn epitomizes. All landscapes have limits and we have either reached critical thresholds in the Bighorn, or rapidly will do so. If we are really concerned about the landscape, the watershed, and not our selfish wishes and wants, the province’s Bighorn plan to create a series of protected areas gives us, and the land, options.
It is distressing to hear the “hair on fire” histrionics of some in the off-highway vehicle (OHV) community and especially from a United Conservative Party MLA on “rights,” “proper consultation” and “losing all access.” This is a misinformation campaign that some south of the border would be proud of and maybe from which advice has been sought. It is unhelpful.
Use of Alberta’s public lands, especially the Forest Reserves, is not a right; it is a privilege. With that privilege comes obligations and responsibilities, not a sense of ultimate, irrevocable, unrestricted entitlement. Somehow, through the inability or unwillingness of previous governments to regulate use, we have reached a situation where mechanized recreational toys and their use have, for some, become more important than watershed protection, maintaining fish and wildlife populations, protecting landscape integrity and offering opportunity to other users.
“Proper consultation” is code for some in the OHV circle for “getting our way” and ignoring the wishes of the majority of Albertans who don’t participate, nor want to, in motorized recreation. In those terms, “proper consultation” is achieving acquiescence to OHV wants at the expense of landscape integrity and other users.
It is human nature to react negatively to limits, especially if you’ve had a free run at your favourite pursuit for years. But it is untruthful to suggest that land-use plans have not included OHV recreation and are “locking up” Alberta’s public lands. The sky is not falling.
Many provide the impression the OHV community has been unfairly singled out in the Bighorn plan. No one is being unfairly singled out; rather, there will be space and time assured now for everyone, including OHV users, to responsibly use and enjoy their activities.
The Bighorn plan provides a reduction in conflicts, we can maintain important environmental values, protect our water sources, sustain habitat and wildlife, with a science-based approach to stewardship.
Too many wants now compete with too few remnants of wild places and wild things. Because in the past we did not want to think about or engage in limits, we have landscapes replete with consequences and complications. An ad-hoc, status quo approach for the Bighorn is akin to turning a blind eye to this. The Bighorn is public land and we have to learn to share it more equitably, in ways that don’t damage it, and if there is damage, to repair it.
The plans for the Bighorn may not be perfect, there is still work to be done to fine-tune many aspects and much of the devil is in the details. What these plans do indicate is the recognition of a very busy landscape, one that requires better management, controls on many aspects of land use, a shift in recreational-use patterns and restoration of some of the land-use footprint.
The sky will not fall with the implementation of the Bighorn plan; continuing the inflamed rhetoric, misinformation and political grandstanding might well cause it to fall.
Lorne Fitch is a professional biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist and an adjunct professor with the University of Calgary.