With Crown land camping likely to remain popular this summer, groups urge respect

Last year, crowds flocked from nearby Calgary to enjoy Crown lands amidst ongoing restrictions from COVID-19. With that expected to continue with warmer weather on the horizon, some groups are urging safety and respect.

Ghost watershed saw surge in campers in 2020, along with concerns of bullets, garbage and waste

Hikers make their way down a path in Crown lands, west of Calgary. Some groups are urging campers to respect the land and remain safe as they seek to escape pandemic restrictions. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Last year, crowds flocked from nearby Calgary to enjoy Crown lands amidst ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

But the influx of visitors brought with it several concerns that the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society hopes to mitigate when expected crowds return to those lands as the weather warms.

Marina Krainer with the society said the group has definitely noticed an increased use of the area, especially when it comes to camping.

"There are quite a few concerns with that. There aren't very many designated and built campsites, so people just camp where they can pull off the road, which can cause erosion [and] loss of vegetation," Krainer said.

"People are cutting down even green trees for firewood because they can't find any firewood otherwise."

Last September, the society highlighted some of the problems popping up as a surge of campers flocked to the area: crowds camping too close to water, burned and damaged trees, and a problematic amount of human fecal matter.

It's for those reasons that Krainer said she hopes things are better managed this summer.

"It's tough to keep up with it," she said. "We can try the best we can do to try and reach people and let them know about the importance of this area as watershed and also watch out for other users, be respectful to other users out here — the rest comes down to enforcement." 

Marina Krainer with the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society says the group has noticed more camping and off-highway vehicle use as Calgarians seek to escape pandemic restrictions in favour of camping on Crown land. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Krainer said she didn't think some campers realize that no one attends to the areas to ensure litter has been picked up.

"We've seen a lot of issues with littering, whether it's from target shooting or people camping and leaving their garbage behind," she said. "I think people may think that somebody comes and picks up all the garbage bags, but that doesn't exist.

"All this garbage goes somewhere, and typically with spring runoff or with rain showers, everything goes down the hill, so it ends up straight in the streams that at the end of the day, becomes drinking water in Calgary."

Safety risks

Last summer, three people drowned after being swept under a powerful waterfall in west-central Alberta.

Such scenarios can happen when visitors underestimate the risk of remote recreation, according to a Clearwater County official.

"We just want people to be prepared and aware — many of these incidents — I think all of them, could have been prevented just with some planning, awareness and some experience," said Jerry Pratt with the county during a virtual meeting of Clearwater County officials.

The provincial government said it plans to invest in parks and public land. Alberta Environment spokeswoman Jess Sinclair said new funding will translate into 50 additional full-time employees, including conservation officers.

The Ghost Watershed Alliance Society has noticed plenty of garbage, such as this toilet paper, left on Crown lands since campers flocked out from Calgary. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Krainer said some solutions to pressing issues — such as implementing a convenient dump station for RVs — can't be implemented quickly, but are future goals of the society.

"The rest is really awareness and talking to people, letting them know how to leave no trace," she said.

"This is important for watershed, this is important for wildlife. We do have a number of threatened species on this landscape here, and they do matter, because they tell us something about the health of the watershed."

Sharlene Fritz, another member of the society, said she hoped the group's document from last year would continue to be implemented.

"We put together short-term and long-term solutions, and [I think] the government is very much focused on the short-term," she said. "But I think they also have to have an eye to the long-term and more sustainable use in this area."

With files from Helen Pike