Alberta invests $3 million in 'crown of the continent' Castle parks

The province is making a $3-million investment into the Castle region in the hopes of drawing more tourism to southwestern Alberta, and releasing a management plan.

73,000-sq.-km. region spans southwest Alberta, southeast B.C. and northern Montana

An aerial view shows Table Mountain and Beaver Mines Lake within the Castle parks region. (Government of Alberta/Flickr)

The province is making a $3-million investment into the Castle region in the hopes of drawing more tourism to southwestern Alberta, and releasing a management plan, to ensure the area's waters, wildlife and traditional First Nation sites are protected for future generations.

The improvements will include new campsites, warm-up huts, cabins, water crossings, signage and other trail improvements throughout the parks.

The 73,000-sq.-km. region spans southwest Alberta, southeast B.C. and northern Montana. It's an important headwater source for the Oldman River basin — which supplies drinking water to the Lethbridge region — and is a key wildlife corridor, home to 200 rare or at-risk species as well as numerous archeological and First Nations sites. 

"I think we should be proud as Albertans we're protecting the headwaters and creating a world-class destination in the crown of the continent," said Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips.

Phillips said the investment is not only part of an economic and diversification strategy, but a chance to protect the province's natural heritage. 

Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips announces the management plan for the Castle region of Alberta Friday. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Piikani First Nation will be a key partner in the parks' management, Phillips said, and will have an opportunity to identify sacred sites and have a say into how they are managed.

"Castle's the first place we're doing this in the history of the province," she said. "This is traditional territory for Piikani for hunting and fishing, but also for medicine … it's really important that conservation serve those treaty obligations."

Stakeholders, like the local advocacy group the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition (CCWC), had been asking for a management plan for the region for more than 40 years, she said. 

"It had suffered from a lack of planning for essentially a generation."

Andy Hurly, a professor and ecologist with the University of Lethbridge and vice-president of the CCWC, said he's happy to see a science-first conservation approach.

"It's vital to use science to inform decisions, especially with contentious issues like the phase-out of off-highway vehicles in the Castle parks," he said in a release.

Off-highway vehicles will be phased out of the parks by 2021, down from the currently existing 137-kilometres of off-highway trails in 2018.

Snowmobiling will still be allowed in the parks.

David Hockey, president of the Great Divide Trails Association, said he's excited the management plan will protect the region for recreation for years to come. 

"We anticipate record numbers of hikers this year at our trail," Hockey said. "I for one can't wait to get out there."

Drywood Creek canyon in Alberta's Castle region. (Government of Alberta/Flickr)

The investment also includes a new $400,000 ad campaign with Travel Alberta to attract visitors to the region.

"We know anecdotally from talking to business owners in the area, from talking to our own Alberta Parks staff, that people were coming from further away because they had heard there were new protected areas there … and people wanted to have access to those high-quality outdoor experiences," Phillips said. "When people come from further away, they spend more money."

Highway 774 south of Beaver Mines to Castle Mountain Resort will be paved, and water lines added to improve access for visitors. 

Phillips said the parks region could also serve as an alternative for visitors to the Waterton Lakes National Park, as some of the park's trails are expected to be closed for at least a year following a devastating wildfire that swept through the area last year.

"Most of the greater Castle region is open for business," said Royce Chwin, president and CEO of Travel Alberta.

With files from CBC's Mike Symington