Government puts hold on Castle Parks trail closure plan

The Alberta government has quietly paused a phase-out of off-highway vehicle trails use in the Castle Parks area of the Canadian Rockies while the government meets with stakeholders. 

132 kilometres will remain open this year

Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon (left) was at Beaver Mines Lake in Castle Provincial Park this week as part of a listening tour. (Jason Nixon Facebook )

The Alberta government has quietly paused a planned phase-out of off-highway vehicle trails use in the Castle Parks area while the government meets with stakeholders. 

Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon was in region this week talking to environmental groups, First Nations, and industry and ATV groups, including the Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad and the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

The two groups opposed the closure of OHV trails in that area of the Canadian Rockies.

Nixon was unavailable Friday for an interview. His press secretary, Jess Sinclair, said the minister was embarking on what she described as a listening tour after the government received lots of correspondence on the issue. Nixon has no deadline in mind for making a decision, she said. 

"Minister Nixon's predecessor indicated one thing to communities in the area, and then did another — creating significant and understandable acrimony,"  Sinclair said in an email to CBC News. 

"The minister is simply fulfilling his commitment to listen to people in the area, which is why we have chosen to halt further trail closures and work with stakeholders to evaluate processes and ensure that the community as a whole is being heard."

Concerns over the impacts of off-highway vehicles on wildlife and habitat in the Castle region of southwest Alberta prompted 27 scientists to write an open letter in 2017 to then-environment minister Shannon Phillips urging her to close all trails. 

Phillips announced staged trail closures would start in June 2018.

Under the former NDP government's plan, trails open for off-road use were supposed to decrease from 137 to 37 kilometres this year, then drop to one kilometre by 2020. 

A notice posted on the Alberta Parks website in mid-July indicated 132 kilometres will remain open this year while the government undertakes a review.

"Signage, clearing and marking of remaining trails will continue throughout the summer of 2019, though all trail closures have stopped until the minister is able to more fully assess the situation in the area," the notice read.

Sensitive landscape 

Katie Morrison, southern Alberta director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, met with Nixon in the Castle region on Wednesday. 

Morrison thinks the current land management plan should continue. She is concerned that the UCP government has decided to put the trail phase-out on hold. 

"We have seen a lot of damage in that area, and it's going to take a long time for that damage to be restored," she said. 

"And so looking at both the sensitivity of the landscape and the damage there is right now, I think the most appropriate management is to stick with the existing plan and phase out of heavy vehicles from that area."

Morrison said she hopes the government takes into account the extensive consultation that has already gone into creating the land management plan 

NDP environment and parks critic Marlin Schmidt was dismayed but not surprised about the government's decision.

"It's quite clear to me that the UCP is intent on rolling back a lot of the things that we did without thinking about whether or not the things that we did when in government were good," he said. 

The government closed 70 per cent of trails in the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills area last year, eliminating informal routes. 

In 2019, riders can use 541 kilometres of designated OHV trails in the Livingstone Public Land Use Zone and 166 kilometres in the Porcupine Hills zone.  The government is working with a recreation advisory group aimed at improving existing trails and minimizing environment impact.