Parkland County residents west of Edmonton are fighting a proposal for an ATV park on land set aside more than 20 years ago as a wildlife habitat.
"It’s a terrible idea," said Kevin Spencer, who farms across the road. "When I was first here I could go for walks and enjoy nature, see deer, moose, coyotes, rabbits. You never see that anymore."
The two quarter-sections, known locally as Hell’s Half Acre, is already popular with ATV riders, who revel in its bogs and marshes.
Residents say they’ve complained to police and the county for years about noise, trespassing and vandalism.
Over the last 10 years Spencer said he’s put up with noise, swearing and drinking, vandalism, gunshots, and dangerous driving.
The worst day was when a woman brought his grandson’s dying cat up to the house after seeing it run over by an ATV, he said.
"She said the quad went right down into the ditch, just chased the cat down. It’s buried right here. We never did find out who did that."
ATVers promise to encourage responsible riding
Ironically it's ATVers who say they want to ride to the rescue.
An ATV group promises to repair and maintain trails and promote safe and responsible riding on the property if the land is turned into a ATV park.
"It's embarrassing to see what's been done in there," said David Stainthorp, co-founder of the newly-formed Yellowhead Overlanders ATV Society, which has about 30 members.
"We're here to help," he said. "There’s been a lot of negative activity that’s happened with individuals going in there and destroying property.
"We want people to respect and honour what people have here and treat it as your own place," Stainthorp said.
In return, the club wants permission to build a staging area for ATV owners to park their trucks and trailers.
Parkland County surveyed residents on the proposal late last year, but hasn't yet reviewed the results.
Mayor Rod Shaigec believes the ATV park could reduce the number of complaints about nuisance riders.
"These users are cutting private fences and trespassing and it’s having a direct impact on our agricultural producers. They’re seeing significant damage to their crops.
"(A designated ATV area) would lessen some of the impacts in other parts of the county," Shaigec said.
Land set aside in 1991 to protect habitat
In 1991, the land was set aside under the Buck for Wildlife program where money from fishing and hunting licences was used to repair, enhance and manage important wildlife habitats.
The County agreed that for 30 years it would not "undertake, cause, permit, or allow the commencement or carrying out of any clearing, breaking, plowing, drainage, grazing, haying, or other activities or operations of any kind which would reduce or destroy the existing woodland or wetland habitat on the ‘habitat lands."
The County believes the ATV development plan is consistent with the agreement.
But Allan Warrack, who conceived the Buck for Wildlife program in the early 1970s when he was Minister of Lands and Forests, disagrees.
CBC Go Public showed him YouTube videos of people riding through deep water and mud in Hell’s Half Acre.
Proposal 'grotesque,' says former minister
"It’s grotesque," he said. "Someone wasn’t paying attention over the years to the land management of this. Obviously this hasn’t been looked after in any sense of the Buck for Wildlife concept."
In 1997, the provincial government turned over management of Buck for Wildlife lands to the Alberta Conservation Association, an arms-length, not-for-profit organization.
"Buck" lands are normally reserved for foot traffic only, said Todd Zimmerling, ACA Chief Executive Officer.
But in the case of Hell’s Half Acre the province neglected to add a caveat restricting motorized use of the lands, he said.
Warrack believes the damage has been done, and that it’s now up to the province to set aside land to replace the 320 acres in Hell’s Half Acre with an equal parcel of land, and ensure its preservation.
"I don’t think that there is a way that you can create compatibility between ATVs and (preserving a reproductive wildlife habitat)."
A spokesman for Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen said the government would wait for Parkland County’s decision on the land before commenting.