Calgary

Public meetings over Bighorn parks plan resurrected after outcry despite allegations of safety concerns

The final town hall meetings about the Bighorn Country parks plan will go ahead, after the Alberta environment minister's decision to cancel them sparked disappointment and anger in the communities that border the massive wilderness region.

Environment minister says more information will be available in coming days

Sundre Mayor Terry Leslie says people need to be given an opportunity to ask questions about the Bighorn County parks plan. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

The final town hall meetings about the Bighorn Country parks plan will go ahead, after the Alberta environment minister's decision to cancel the meetings sparked disappointment and anger in the communities that border the wilderness region.

Last Saturday, Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips announced the cancellation of parks proposal public information sessions in Drayton Valley, Edmonton, Red Deer and Sundre, following what she called "public safety concerns" involving allegations of bullying and harassment directed at proponents of the project.

On Tuesday, Phillips tweeted the sessions would be rescheduled if safety can be ensured and the telephone town halls will go ahead as early as next week.

Sundre Mayor Terry Leslie, whose constituents live in the area, said he disagrees with what he perceives to be a characterization of his home town as dangerous.

"There are times when people want to express themselves, and if they cross the line, you call the police. You don't say these people can't be trusted in a community that I have lived in and raised my family in," Leslie said.

"You do not make accusations that there isn't safety for people to come and have conversations about public policy or public proposals."

The Alberta government proposed the Bighorn parks plan in November and started holding consultations. The plan includes $40 million over five years to create the Bighorn wildland park: four provincial parks and four recreation areas in Bighorn Country, which sits on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains east of Banff and Jasper National Parks.

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says she's received multiple complaints of harassment related to Bighorn consultations. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Phillips had replaced the town hall meetings with call-in consultations. She also extended the consultation period by two weeks to Feb. 15. People can submit opinions and review the proposal's documentation online.

Opposing views

The huge area, stretching from the national parks to Highway 22, would become a mix of parks, recreation areas and public land, something environmentalists applaud for the extra protection of wildlife, plants and water quality.

But some people in the area worry land restrictions will affect their livelihoods and ability to drive motorized vehicles on the land.

This map from Alberta Environment and Parks shows the proposed changes to Bighorn Country. (Alberta Environment and Parks)

Off-highway vehicles would be allowed but only on designated trails. Oil and gas development could continue and forestry would be allowed on the public land but not in the parks.

Bart Guyon, reeve of Brazeau County, says with sufficient consultation the province will realize his county is a bad place for "a playground," as he called the government's plan to install recreation infrastructure and oversee such use. The county is home to oil and gas pipelines as well as other industrial sites, all of which would remain under the proposal.

"Quite frankly, it felt like a high-pressured, vacuum-cleaner salesman has come to our door and bullied their way in and tried to sell us something that we didn't want and we didn't need. So the community is very upset," Guyon told CBC's Alberta@Noon.

Avoiding 'serious incident'

Tensions have been rising since November's announcement, but the environment minister said she received word those disagreements have gone beyond acceptable.

"So you know, there's nothing arbitrary about this. It's nothing arbitrary when I had five different folks have written letters into us expressing very serious concerns about allegations of bullying, harassment, intimidation. And so I cannot sit on my hands in the face of that," Phillips told the Calgary Eyeopener in advance of her announcement the town halls would be reinstated.

The Alberta government wants to protect the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains near Nordegg, which is a region called Bighorn Country. (Government of Alberta )

Alberta RCMP said they did not provide any official advice to the parks department regarding the consultations, but did confirm they've been contacted by members of the public who wanted police to be aware of "concerning social media interactions."

They said they do not have any ongoing investigations related to the consultations.

CBC Calgary has heard from Albertans who say they've been warned against supporting the planned park and that they felt intimidated at public meetings for their views. Those experiences have not been verified.

Seeking 'respectful conversation'

Cal Rakach of the Bighorn Heritage ATV Society says he's unaware of any incidents of harassment or bullying, and argued the in-person meetings promise a valuable opportunity to discuss plans that affect his members.

Jason Nixon, UCP MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, says he has not witnessed bullying or intimidation over the Bighorn proposal. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

His group, which volunteers with and raises money for trail maintenance, feels it hasn't been adequately consulted about the proposed changes and the impact on ATV access.

"We're following the process and this is just putting a hiccup into it. There's already a lot of distrust in the neighborhood," he said.

According to a recently released poll, 73 per cent of Albertans support the Bighorn parks plan, 16 per cent oppose it and 11 per cent are neutral.

The survey was conducted by Edmonton firm Advanis on behalf of the Alberta branches of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

From Dec. 10-19, 2018, Advanis randomly selected a sample group of 1,077 people, which the firm says it large enough to adequately represent the population with a margin of error of +/- three per cent, 19 times out of 20.

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with the Fifth Estate. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

With files from Lucie Edwardson, Monty Kruger, Tahirih Foroozan, Alberta@Noon, Calgary Eyeopener

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