Shannon Phillips, Minister of Environment and Parks, spoke about the next steps on the way to see the draft management plan for the two new parks in the southwest corner of the province be adopted by government at a March 1 news conference.
“We’ve heard from thousands of Albertans,” said Phillips. “We’ve heard that Albertans love the Castle area.”
She added people have shared their enjoyment for being able to use the area for various activities such as camping, hiking and fishing, and that many people want to see the area protected so it can be used by future generations.
Government officials have deemed it necessary to have a larger conversation around the Castle parks area, but also the southern Eastern Slopes.
Starting March 8, there will be a series of public information sessions and stakeholder meetings that will take place over a number of months.
“... It will provide greater clarity to user groups as to what the future will look like,” added Phillips.
The Southern Alberta Recreation Management Planning Process sessions will be a way for participants to examine conservation and land-use issues in the entire southern Eastern Slopes as well as the Castle parks areas. Items up for discussion include linear disturbances, off-highway vehicle use and trail planning as well as management and uses impacting ranching, forestry and recreation.
According to a news release, the first information session is March 10. It coincides with an updated draft parks management plan for the 103,000-hectare Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park.
Because that draft plan has been updated, government officials felt it was necessary to increase the length of time to accept public feedback on it by an additional month. The new deadline to submit comments about the draft management plan is now April 19.
Some of the changes made to the draft management plan for the Castle parks include:
• allowing hunters to recover game through limited use of trail networks during hunting season;
• having grazing permits managed by rangelands staff and working with Crown land grazing permit holders on a formalized agreement;
• the protection of fish populations, including the threatened Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout, through fish recovery strategies;
• special consideration to the elderly and those people with mobility issues to ensure park access is inclusive and available to everyone;
• maintaining northern access and routes into the park from the Crowsnest Pass;
• increased enforcement to prevent irresponsible activities in the Castle parks;
• and no changes to the current state-of-trail access in the coming year for off-highway vehicles (OHV).
Phillips said the focus when it comes to OHV activity in the Castle parks area for this year will be education, creating proper signage and only closing illegal trails.
She added the government will work with OHV groups to ensure existing trails are properly maintained.
“We want to ensure trail planning proceeds with user group feedback,” she added.
Additional enforcement will be a large piece of the puzzle. Phillips pointed out the previous provincial PC government reduced the enforcement budget, but last year the NDP government committed an additional $2 million to the $24-million budget for enforcement.
“Planning and investment in Alberta has not kept pace with recreational pressures of a growing population over the last decade,” said Albi Sole, executive director, Outdoor Recreation Council of Alberta. “The government’s determination to bring a layered and disciplined approach to our natural area will bring great benefits to the health of individuals, families and communities.”
During the news conference Sole added, he believes a parks management plan for the southwest corner will create stronger recreational opportunities and positive impacts for the area, including all of southern Alberta.
Phillips during the question and answer session re-iterated the draft management plan for the Castle parks phases out OHV use over five years, not all at once nor immediately. She added it is the goal of the government to support OHV use in places where it is most compatible and appropriate to do so.
“Existing trail networks are open in year one,” she added. “What are closing, is a number of the illegal trails ... (We want to) begin some of the reclamation work.”
Phillips said most of those illegal trails are in the wildland portion of the park. She also pointed out the draft parks management plan is just that still — a draft.
Over the next four years, more than $20 million will be used to improve tourism opportunities and “foster responsible use of the area.”
In a statement released by the Wildrose opposition, Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier said he was glad to see the feedback timeline extended by 30 days, but would have liked it to be the 60 days his party had been asking for previously.
“Even with 30 more days, the timeline for concerned Albertans to provide their feedback is far too short for adequate consultation to be done,” he said.
“A 120-day period for public feedback is the bare minimum length required for legitimate public consultation on this. Also, any expanded timeframe must be accompanied by a series of public town halls, so the people can truly be heard.
“I’m also disappointed by the lack of details in (the March 1) announcement around future stakeholder meetings and any potential relocation plans for off-highway vehicle users in the region.
“There is no harm in the NDP government taking the time to get this right.”
More information about the draft parks management plan and larger Southern Alberta Recreation Management Planning Process can be found online at: https://talkaep.alberta.ca/CastleManagementPlan.