Calgary

Conservation bid would protect area bigger than Banff National Park, but offroaders are fighting it

A proposal to conserve a massive swath of western Alberta wilderness is facing opposition from recreation enthusiasts and some business owners who worry the measures would be too restrictive.

Bighorn wildland park would cover 16,700 square kilometres west of Red Deer

Sarah Wilson is a long-time resident and co-owner of a hospitality business in Nordegg. (Submitted by Sarah Wilson)

A proposal to conserve a massive swath of western Alberta wilderness is facing opposition from recreation enthusiasts and some business owners who worry the measures would be too restrictive.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), among other groups, is petitioning the province to designate the Bighorn area a wildland park, banning further industrial development and restricting off-highway vehicles.

The protected area would stretch 6,700 square kilometres west of Red Deer, covering a landscape bigger than Banff National Park.

Protecting vulnerable species

Environmentalists say the area is a source of drinking water for Edmonton and home to vulnerable species, such as grizzly bears, but they worry the wilderness is under threat from development and offroaders.

"This is about creating more parks and protected areas and places that we love and that are part of our outdoor heritage," said Anne-Marie Syslak, CPAWS's executive director for the southern Alberta chapter.

The proposal has been met with opposition from some groups that depend on the area for recreation or their livelihoods — or both.

'This is where we enjoy nature'

Sarah Wilson, a longtime resident and co-owner of a hospitality business in the small community of Nordegg, said quadding is a way of life in the wilds of Bighorn.

"This is where we enjoy nature; this is where we come out to get away from the city," she said. "If you turn it into a wildland park, there's a lot of restrictions that will be put in place and a lot of people will no longer be able to enjoy the area."

Wilson said banning offroad vehicles would render some areas of the landscape inaccessible. She said any move that makes recreation in Bighorn less attractive would harm her cabin business, which relies on tourism.

Wilson believes a few bad actors who use the park and don't clean up their mess are fuelling support for the conservation campaign, though she said the real problem is the area doesn't have enough officers enforcing the rules.

She worries the campaign might get a sympathetic ear in the provincial government.

"We're hoping to fight it."

'We're just saying, Not here'

Syslak said offroaders account for a small share of Alberta's population, which she believes is highly in favour of conserving more lands for future generations.

"We need to plan and accommodate those [offroad] users," she said. "We just are saying, 'not here,' because this area is too important and has a lot of values that we need to protect."