People from all over the region filled the Dovercourt Hall Wednesday night for a town hall meeting regarding the status of the Bighorn Backcountry.
The area includes more than 5,000 square kilometres (1.2 million acres) of public land divided into six public land-use zones (PLUZ) - Blackstone Wapiabi, Dormer Sheep, Job/Cline, Kiska/Wilson, Panther Corners, Upper Clearwater/Ram. Bighorn hosts a large variety of recreational activities including camping, OHV and snow vehicle use, hiking, fishing, hunting and cycling.
The area is under management by Alberta Environment and Parks, which encourages responsible camping, hiking and off-road-vehicle travel. However, environmental activist groups like Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) want more restrictions on use and even provincial park status.
“What that means, we don’t know because all of it has been rumor and so that puts us in a spot where it’s really tough for us to respond because of course we are not the government but we are hearing rumors that there is discussions,” said Jason Nixon, UCP MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre. “The key point is this that these discussions should not be happening in private they should be happening in a very public way where we can participate in the conversation about what is happening.”
Alberta Environment and Parks has acknowledged the lobbying of Y2Y and CPAWS but has not made any announcements regarding the future of the Bighorn.
“Everybody that I have talked to recognizes that there are some things that need to happen, but there are also things that are already happening that we should celebrate and that there is a role for Albertans to play in their back yard and the idea that this is being done in secret is scaring everybody,” said Nixon.
Volunteers play an important role in maintaining and enhancing the designated trail system in the Bighorn Backcountry. Their work helps prove water quality and protect fisheries resources and riparian zones.
“There are three primary stewardship groups, Bighorn Heritage ATV Society, Friends of the Eastern Slopes Association, and the Old Snowmobile club and the Alberta Equine Confederation contributes a lot and the mountain bike guys have done a lot of work as well as Alberta Conservation,” said Cal Rakach, a volunteer and advocate for maintaining the current status of the backcountry. “When you are going out there and you see the bridges, the trails, and campgrounds, it’s all volunteer work by these different groups.”
Rakach added that volunteers have probably spent at least $1.3 million dollars since 2002.
Clearwater County’s Sasquatch and Partners Environmental Stewardship program provides a positive message of "respecting our backyard" to those who are using the West Country for recreation.
County councillor Jim Duncan spoke at the meeting and says the program's signage, education and enforcement has helped increase compliance when it comes to random camping, off-highway vehicles and other recreational use on their public lands.
“There are five counties involved now putting up signs and taking this positive message out there, that would include Mountain View County, us, Brazeau County, Yellowhead and Greenview,” he said.
The Clearwater Trails Initiative is a society that focuses on the vacant crown land that’s sectioned between the PLUZ on the Forestry Trunk Road and the south area of Rocky Mountain House. This is land that is legal to go out and ride and camp on.
The government was invited to attend the meeting to help give some answers. No representatives showed up.
Nixon says that he and the UCP will continue to raise this issue in the legislature and show the good things that are happening in the community, including plans that would address some of the issues for the area without requiring significant access closures.
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