Final Bighorn Country public hearing draws packed house in Sundre

The plan would create a lattice of parks, protected areas and mixed-use public lands in central Alberta, sharing a border on its western edge with Banff National Park.

Many in crowd want more info on turning large swath of central Alberta into park land

Al Rand said he was happy to see so many people out at a public consultation on Bighorn Country. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Crowds packed into a Legion in Sundre on Monday for a public meeting on the Alberta government's Bighorn Country proposal.

The plan would create a lattice of parks, protected areas and mixed-use public lands in central Alberta, similar to Kananaskis Country, sharing a border on its western edge with Banff National Park. 

The $40-million plan has been controversial, in part due to an earlier cancellation of public meetings over what the government said were threats against supporters of the proposal. 

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips was forced to backtrack when she said the RCMP had opened investigations into threats, but the RCMP said no such investigations were underway. 

Enforcement of current rules

On Monday, the crowd brought a mix of views regarding the plan. 

"Our concern is that the information they're providing is not enough detail. It's too basic for what people's concerns are," said Susan Blatchford. 

She's worried about being able to random camp in the wilderness, if it becomes a park, and continued use of off-road vehicles. 

The proposal calls for ATV use on approved trails and backcountry camping in designated areas. 

Many at the Legion said they'd like to see more enforcement of current rules and regulations in the area, but many were also wary of creating new parks. 

"If it was enforced and done right; the problem is just it won't be done right. There's a bunch of bureaucrats planning this and it won't be done right," said Don Russell. 

He acknowledged there is money for increased enforcement of current regulations in the area, but concerns remain. 

"How many times have you talked to the government and the answer you got wasn't the way it happened?" he said. 

Impact of tourism

Rob Kennedy said he thinks creating parks will actually hurt the environment. He said current activities like logging and oil and gas, which will still be permitted in some areas, don't have the same impact as tourism and the infrastructure needed to sustain it. 

"That just becomes permanent and it expands and that just ruins the wilderness," he said. 

Some in attendance also spoke in favour of the Bighorn project, but none were willing to appear on camera with CBC News.

Al Rand, who lives near Bowden, was just happy to see so many people engaged in the debate. 

"It's good to see the public interest in here. This is democracy at its best, so I'm happy to see that," he said. 

No threats

Rick Blackwood, an assistant deputy minister for Alberta Environment and Parks, said he was pleased to see so many people at the public meeting. 

"We're hearing an incredibly broad spectrum of comments — good, bad and in the middle — which is entirely expected," he said. 

"What we have in front of everyone right now is just a proposal, so a lot of people are seeking greater clarity, you know, what they've read is good, but what they need to understand more. So we've spent a lot of time trying to clarify things."

Blackwood said he hasn't felt uncomfortable or threatened at any of the four sessions on the proposal. 

"In some cases, people have gotten a little bit excited, but that's to be expected," he said. "This is the place where people live, work and recreate. They have a heavily vested interest here."

With files from Dave Gilson