Park designation proposal triggers turf war in Bighorn backcountry

Conservationists are turning up the pressure on the Alberta government to transform a contested parcel of Rocky Mountain terrain into an official wildland provincial park.

'You make it a park, and the people are kicked out it,' says Cal Rakach

The Bighorn backcountry covers more 5,000 square kilometres on the eastern edge of the Alberta Rockies. (LoveyourHeadwaters)

Conservationists are turning up the pressure on the Alberta government to transform a contested parcel of Rocky Mountain terrain into an official wildland provincial park.

The Bighorn backcountry covers more than 5,000 square kilometres east of Banff and Jasper national parks, extending north from the Red Deer River to the Brazeau River.

The area encompasses pristine mountain ranges, rolling foothills, alpine grasslands, rivers and lakes.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a group working to preserve ecosystems along the length of the Rocky Mountains, is among several conservation groups lobbying the province for the official park designation.

More than 20,000 people have signed its online petition.

The conservation question 

The Bighorn is the missing piece in Alberta's conservation plan, said Hilary Young, Y2Y interim senior program manager for Alberta.

Without protection, the area will remain vulnerable, Young said.

"It's largely intact right now, but there's still a lot of industrial extraction happening out there," Young said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

A wildland provincial park designation would make the area off limits to commercial development and restrict ATV access in certain areas considered critical to some species.

Areas that remain relatively untouched from industrial and commercial development need to be protected for the future, Young said.

"There are coal mine leases, there is some oil and gas activity on the eastern edge, there is forestry," Young said.

"And some of the features landscapes, especially in the east, are used for different recreational activities, some of which are little bit more destructive and not as sustainable in the long term."

If the wildland park designation were granted, existing mineral leases would be phased out, commercial development would be banned in the park, cattle grazing allotments would not be granted and motorized recreation vehicles would be prohibited in critical wildlife zones.  Camping and trail access would also be restricted.

ATV riders and other recreational users have long fought restricted access to the area, which is popular with quadders and snowmobilers. 

Cal Rakach, former president of the Bighorn Heritage ATV Society, said he has been fighting to maintain motorized access in the area for more than 30 years.

He likens the proposal to the Castle Wilderness Area, which covers 1,000 square kilometres of mountains and valleys in southwest Alberta.  ATV users lost access to the region earlier this year when it was designated a provincial park and provincial wildland park.  

You make it a park, and the people are kicked out of it- Cal Rakach

Rakach said ATV users are an "easy target" for conservation groups. But for Rakach, the proposal's flaws are rooted in community access, not keeping quads out.

"You make it a park, and the people are kicked out of it," he said. "You explain that to the generations of people that have used that country."

The land is currently protected by an access management plan, a patchwork of land-use agreements, established in 2002 under Alberta's Forests Act.

The Bighorn Backcountry is divided into six public land use zones, and recreational activities allowed in each zone vary greatly.

Changing the lands to a park status will not provide any further protection but will restrict select users for no reason, Rakach said.

"We believed in 2002 that this management plan was going to take us into the future," he said. "These volunteer groups have put their blood and guts into the campgrounds, the trails and trying to manage this.

"A park would erase that."

Much of the Bighorn was once included in the national parks but the protection was withdrawn during the First World War.

In March, the Alberta government sent out a press release asking Albertans to provide input on how land in the North Saskatchewan Region will be used and managed, but no announcements have been made about Bighorn.  

There has been growth in the capital region and in Calgary, and that's put pressure on the eastern slopes of  the Rocky Mountains.- Shannon Phillips

Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips remained tight-lipped on the issue in a recent interview with CBC News.

Phillips said the province is consulting with user groups and conservation officials, and will have more to say on the management issue in the coming weeks.

"I wasn't surprised to see the number of signatures," Phillips said of the petition. "There has been a growth in our population, there has been growth in the capital region and in Calgary, and that's put pressure on the eastern slopes of  the Rocky Mountains.

"There are more people seeking recreational experiences, but at the same time, there are more people that want to make sure that we protect pristine nature for future generations."

Rakach​, who lives in Sundre, has been participating in provincial consultations over the summer. He remains hopeful government officials will maintain status quo in the Bighorn.

"We hope that common sense prevails," he said.