By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on March 14, 2017.
Outdoor Recreation Council of Alberta
A strange weather pattern has hit the Eastern Slopes. It’s not a chinook. But there’s certainly a lot of hot air.
The raging storm is whirling around who gets to enjoy our iconic Alberta wilderness areas, including the newly designated Castle parks and the surrounding areas around the Crowsnest Pass.
There’s a lot of clamour about the government riding roughshod over families and communities, closing the backcountry down at the whim of environmentalists. The eye of the hurricane? A draft management plan for the Castle Parks, which considers a five-year phase-out of off-highway vehicles. Some suggest this is only the beginning of a bigger, more nefarious conspiracy.
Listen closely, however, and you’ll hear many other voices. There are many everyday Albertans considered in the draft management plan. Some camp, fish or hunt in southwestern Alberta. Not all use motors. They’re not OHV users or environmental activists, they just love to spend time outdoors with their families.
It’s crucial for the government to create places for all Albertans. But a little perspective would change this conversation.
Two out of five Albertans say outdoor activities are among their three favourite things to do. That’s approximately 1.85 million Albertans who enjoy non-motorized activities like hiking, horseback riding and cycling. These are great things to do, nurturing physical and psychological health, contributing greatly to the high quality of life all Albertans treasure.
While much has been made of the economic implications of OHVs, non-motorized activities are economic drivers, too. They generate between $4 and $8 billion in direct economic activity in Alberta, roughly equal to the forestry industry. That’s not including spinoffs.
Our wilderness is a true Alberta advantage. Thanks to Waterton Lakes, Banff and Jasper, this province has an international reputation, a place to enjoy unfettered views and vistas. The Castle Parks add another 103,000-hectare jewel, this one in the Crown of the Continent.
Nearly a million people have moved to Alberta in the last decade, adding to environmental and recreational pressures throughout the province. A measured approach could funnel economic activity to the southwestern corner of the province, while simultaneously safeguarding wildlife corridors and at-risk species.
Alberta has relied heavily on resource extraction for generations, but a knowledge economy is another key to our future. Areas like the Castle have potential beyond tourism. They could be a factor in drawing the best and brightest to Alberta, further boosting Alberta’s economic diversification.
The unfortunate truth is that tranquility and freedom-from-traffic are essential parts of the non-motorized wilderness experience. The research is very clear: when motorized activities move into an area, other recreation moves out.
Obviously, the OHV community has a legitimate right to enjoy Alberta’s backyard. That’s why it’s important to designate areas for this purpose. The government’s announcement, which expands the dialogue through the Southern Alberta Recreation Management Planning Process, is a good first step.
Our wilderness must be appropriately regulated and developed. A proposed phase-out of off-highway vehicles out of Castle need not be a draconian move, if followed with sensible planning for the Eastern Slopes. Sustainable opportunities could be found for all types of recreation.
The benefits of a multi-faceted approach can already be seen in the Kananaskis region. As areas under active management have increased, the quality of the recreation environment in K-Country has improved for every form of recreational choice. The result? Increased numbers of people recreating outdoors and a growing reputation for Calgary as a world-class city to work, play and visit.
There will be a lot of tough decisions to make in coming months, but these discussions need not be a winner-takes-all discussion. With respectful dialogue and a willingness to compromise, solutions could meet the needs of the environment, industry and recreational users. The last thing we need is a rhetorical storm.
I, for one, look forward to taking part in this conversation. It’s something I see every day: working together, Albertans can weather any storm.
Albi Sole is executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of Alberta, an umbrella organization representing all forms of non-motorized recreation.
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