Coalition calls for limits on off-road vehicles in Alberta to protect water
COLETTE DERWORIZ, CALGARY HERALD
Published on: January 25, 2016 Last Updated: January 26, 2016 1:07 PM MST
With conservationists calling for strict limits on motorized vehicles to protect water and wildlife, at least one off-road vehicle group says they are willing to work with both the province and the environmental groups.
On Monday, Alberta’s conservation community called for limits on off-road vehicles on public lands and a total ban on their use in parks along the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies.
It comes after the NDP government announced the expansion of an existing wildland provincial park and the addition of a new provincial park in the Castle wilderness.
The move shut out logging, mining and future oil and gas surface development, but it still allows off-highway vehicle use on designated trails.
“We’re looking back to some of the original intent of the Eastern Slopes policy,” said Stephen Legault, program director for Alberta and the Northwest Territory with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “Alberta designated certain parts of the Eastern Slopes as being too important to wreck — they were zoned as prime protection and critical wildlife.
“Those places are too important for watershed conservation and for wildlife to destroy with off-highway vehicles. Full stop.”
They asked the provincial government to immediately ban off-road vehicles from protected areas on the Eastern Slopes, including the new Castle parks; permanently close and decommission trails in westslope cutthroat trout habitat; and reduce existing road and motorized trails in the areas by May.
Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips said that their concerns make a valuable contribution to the debate.
“We have a number of different, competing interests to balance in this area,” she said, noting the parks management process on the Castle will be an important part of the conversation.
Phillips said the NDP government inherited the competing uses in the area, suggesting they need to proceed thoughtfully by meeting with all of the affected groups.
“I don’t believe the two sides are as far apart as we would all have them to be,” she said.
Gary Clark, president of the Quad Squad Crowsnest Pass, said everyone is entitled to their opinion.
“We’re probably on the same page,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “The groups just don’t know it.”
Clark said the Quad Squad has been working for 15 years to ensure the watershed is protected in the Castle wilderness area by building bridges over the creeks and rivers.
“We don’t do that so we don’t get our quads wet,” he said. “We do it so we aren’t disturbing the waterways.”
If there is damage, he said it might be a matter of better education or enforcement of off-road vehicle users who aren’t following the rules.
Whatever the solution, scientists said it’s far too important to be ignored any longer.
“It’s our source water,” said Kevin Van Tighem, a conservationist, biologist and author. “Over 90 per cent of prairie water comes from the Foothills in the mountains. If it doesn’t soak in, it runs off and, if you fill it with slices and cuts and erosion, it’s going to run off very fast.
“We end up with worse floods and less summer water — both of which are bad for the people of Alberta.”
Water from the Rockies provides water not only for Alberta, but also for parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In southern Alberta, it comprises 30 per cent of the water in the Oldman River basin and features rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater systems.
Lorne Fitch, an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary who’s retired as a fisheries biologist, said it’s a critical resource.
“What we’ve seen progressively over, arguably, two decades is a tremendous escalation in the amount of road density in watersheds that are critical to what we now recognize as threatened trout species,” he said, noting there’s a direct link between the number of roads and trails to the amount of sediment in the water.
Fitch said it causes all sorts of issues for both fish health and water quality — both of which he said are deteriorating.
“It’s the perfect storm of failure to deal with access early, the proliferation of access far beyond what the critical thresholds are for any number of species,” he said. “It’s not just aquatic species, but terrestrial ones (such as elk and grizzly bears) as well.
“We’re at the point where everyone thinks that those roads and trails are an absolute necessity to have for their recreational opportunity and now the fight is going to be on over whether or not we consider watershed values in terms of water quality and threatened species to be more important than a person’s recreational opportunity with an off-highway vehicle.”