Alberta expands Castle area parks, plans to phase out off-highway vehicles

Premier Rachel Notley announced Friday the creation of Castle Provincial Park in the southwest corner of the province, along with expanded boundaries to Castle Wildland Provincial Park in the same area.

Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park made official by Orders in Council

A view of the Lynx Creek Valley within the Castle area. (John Novotny)

Alberta has announced final boundaries for a pair of protected areas in southwestern Alberta and will move to phase out off-highway vehicles in the region.

Premier Rachel Notley said the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and the new Castle Provincial Park will preserve just over 1,000 square kilometres of mountains and foothills, a crucial link in a developing wildlife corridor that reaches from the United States into Yukon.

"Wild spaces have always been among our most precious treasures in Alberta," Notley said at a press conference in Pincher Creek.

"We are campers, we are hikers, we are mountain bikers and we are much more. We are weekend warriors to the very core, and when you work as hard as Albertans do, you need places like this — a sanctuary, a means of escape from the daily grind, a way to breathe and reconnect with nature," she said.

Part of the new protection measures could include a complete phase-out of off-highway vehicles over three to five years, along with the reclamation of unauthorized trails through the parks.

Gary Clark of the Quad Squad, a group of off-highway vehicle users, said the original plan announced in September 2015 was for quads to be allowed in the provincial park.

"They've taken a complete flip. They've basically taken this area and turned it into a conservation park," Clark said.

"It's almost like the government is saying, 'We don't want you here. Carry on to B.C."'

Jobs and tourism

The move will also result in the creation of 44 new jobs to help oversee and maintain the parks, said Notley.

"And the parks themselves will act as a source of economic diversification, bringing in more tourists, and creating more jobs," Notley said.

The premier called the announcement an important one from an environmental protection perspective, noting the area is home to about 200 rare or at-risk species.

The next step will be to develop a management plan and tourism strategy for the 103,000 hectare area, she said.

"We are launching a 60-day online public consultation period to get Albertans' input on the park's features and opportunities, before a final plan is developed," she said.

'Historical day'

"And we will work with Indigenous groups to explore how the park can be managed co-operatively," Notley added.

An aerial view of Victoria Peak as seen from Butcher Lake within the Castle area. (Government of Alberta)

Piikani First Nation Chief Stan Grier called Friday "a historical day" for the region.

"We all know this is a pristine area, it's healthy, it's free of pollution," he said.

"It's not like northern parts of Alberta, or different regions of the country. This territory is extremely healthy and it's important we entrench this type of territory for all to enjoy."

The move was applauded by conservation groups.

"It's been a long time since Alberta made a concerted effort to protect nature," said Katie Morrison, conservation director with the Southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

"We hope that today's announcement by the premier signals a renewed focus on parks and protected areas across the province."

Off limits of off-highway vehicles

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said scientific research convinced the government that the Castle wasn't the place for motorized recreation. 

"We have a number of other places and public land in other spots where we can work with the OHV to find the resources to build the appropriate trails, bridges and staging areas. We're going to take a period of years to ensure the right pieces are in place," she said.

Alternate land is available near the town of Crowsnest Pass and elsewhere in southwestern Alberta, she said.

But quad enthusiast Clark has his doubts. He said adjacent areas are already moving to restrict off-highway vehicles. The Castle wilderness can remain open to off-roaders and still support wildlife with better signage and enforcement, he suggested.

The total amount of land within the boundaries hasn't changed since the original announcement in the fall of 2015. The wildland park has been slightly expanded at the expense of the provincial park to better protect some areas, said Phillips.

Trevor Birkmann, who's lived in the area for 30 years, said he was upset residents weren't told of the announcement beforehand.

"These lands are used by the local community for more reasons than just the occasional camping trip," Birkmann said, adding that there are "backwoods people who love to utilize this land" throughout the year.

"There's a great capacity for hunting on these lands and as soon as you put the words provincial and park together, it's going to eradicate that."

With files from Evelyne Asselin and Dave Dormer