Pole Haven is a beautiful spot nestled at the base of the Rockies just East of Waterton. Its 10,000 acres have been a familiar spot to many locals who have long camped, hunted, hiked and utilized motorized recreation on the land.
Recently the area has been closed to motorized recreation and walking is now the only way to access this area. This change has brought up lots of questions and concerns about how public land is managed and so we have summarized the facts below.
Pole Haven falls in the Oldman watershed, and as stewards and a voice for the Oldman watershed, the OWC has a responsibility to ensure the land and water is prioritized in decision making while also including the voices of all stakeholders involved.
Pole Haven is unique in that the land is Crown Land controlled by the Public Lands division within government, not by the Forestry division. This means that grazers have access to this land through a government-granted Pole Haven Grazing Lease (GRL 33957) - unlike forestry controlled lands, where the grazers are granted a grazing licence. A grazing lease differs in that the lease holder has the authority to make certain decisions on recreational use when that use is affecting the health of the land, grazing resource, or livestock. On Pole Haven, there are 30-35 members to the lease held by the Grazing Association. Leaseholders are deemed, by this contract through the Government of Alberta (GoA), “stewards of the land” who are responsible to “manage our land resources in a way that benefits us all” (Use Respect - Contact First). A full description of the regulations for both parties, lease holders and recreationists, is available at GoA - Recreation on Agricultural Public Lands.
Under these regulations, recreational users must contact the leaseholder for access to the land. Two main lines of contact were used to request access to Pole Haven over the last decade or more – written letter permission and phone call permission. The Grazing Association (the Association) stated that each request for permission would grant access for an individual Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) rider, up to a family of 10 people.
As mentioned, management of the land is the responsibility of the Grazing Lease holders. The Grazing Association has been faced with reported challenges of “over-access, rowdiness, human and livestock endangerment and an overall concern for the health of the land”. Signage cost and reporting of inappropriate use is the responsibility of the Grazing Association. This cost in both dollars and time has been stated as a heavy load on the non-profit organization. As stated by one member, “We are ranchers, not recreation managers”.
With these responsibilities, the Grazing Association has asked for help from the GoA - Environment and Parks, Fish and Wildlife division and predecessors of these departments – in the past, on the problems related to recreational access. According to an Association member, the GoA - specifically the designated Fish and Wildlife officer assigned to the area - had known about the problems and had a good standing relationship with the Grazing Association.
However, when access to Pole Haven was at its peak (varied reports of total numbers from 100-300 people on a long weekend, depending on who you ask), the lack of capacity of one or two Fish and Wildlife officers resulted in inability to properly manage and enforce the entire area, and therefore the responsibility fell back on the Association.
The Grazing Association had faced challenges of “over-access, rowdiness, human and livestock endangerment and an overall concern for the health of the land”. Members of both the Grazing Association and the local OHVers have admitted to problems and stated that they usually occurred on long weekends with the increase in numbers. Not all motorized users were causing problems and in fact some have been actively educating other users on how to use respect.
Local OHVers who have been using this area for decades have taken this closure at a personal level. “This is where I have grown up, and where I have taken my kids to ride. Now I have to tell my grandchildren that we can no longer spend time on the Pole Haven trails as a family” said one OHVer who has been actively trying to resolve problems with other recreationists.
The Grazing Association is privy to this outcry, as stated by an Association member: “I still feel bad for the local people, but unfortunately there is no other way to make this operate. We have explored all other options”.
Pole Haven was closed to OHVs at the end of February and only foot access is permitted by those who are not members of the Pole Haven Grazing Association.
_*_Motorized access is permitted to Grazing Lease holders
for the purposes of managing the leased land.
Communications between local OHVers and the Grazing Association about the Pole Haven concerns have been going on for quite some time, and led to discussions around higher enforcement, user access fees, recreation management plans and more. In addition to these two groups, another concerned group are the local landowners around the Pole Haven Grazing Lease who are now worried their land will be accessed for OHV recreation. The main access points will be gated and locked in the near future, and unapproved access to Pole Haven will be considered trespassing, for which a fine can be issued.
Continued frustrations on the side of the OHV community have led to a circulating petition to “Action a Public Hearing with Alberta Environment in respect to Alberta Legislation to engage in a Dispute Resolution Process”. Details of this process can be accessed at GoA - Recreation on Agricultural Public Lands. However, the GoA has stated that requests for dispute resolution, mediation, and meetings with the Pole Haven Grazing Association have been received, but that under the Recreational Access Regulation, this process does not apply in this case.
The Grazing Association hopes that this closure can be time-dependant. As one member stated, “Motorized access will be restricted for now, and re-evaluated once the land recovers”. The GoA encourages the public to contact their hotline at 1-888-279-0023 and see the information available at GoA - Recreation on Agricultural Public Lands.
The OWC recognizes the contention surrounding the closure of Pole Haven, and as a stakeholder representative of the watershed, the OWC will represent all sides and seek the solution that respects the health of the watershed. Pole Haven is located in the Oldman watershed and many of the grazers and recreationists that access the area also live within the watershed.
Both the grazers and recreationists have agreed that Pole Haven was under pressures that the ecosystem could not withstand during times of extreme use of un-managed trails. There is no and has never been a recreation access plan in place for Pole Haven, and currently, no motorized access is allowed.
However, will this solve the problems facing our watershed? OWC is concerned that without effective enforcement, a user fee system to pay for it, and an education program to match, banning an area to motorized recreation may not stop damage to the area. . We need long-term, scientifically informed solutions that consider all stakeholders. There are environmental thresholds that inform what level of use is sustainable , and we need to include all the components mentioned above to uphold our responsibility to the watershed and ensure our safety.
Other areas face similar pressures and the OWC is working with stakeholders, including motorized users, to restore stream banks and educate motorized recreationists on safe, environmentally respectful behavior that will protect recreationists and the watershed. As for Pole Haven, will time restore its scars and will recreationists have a chance to enjoy it again? Our future actions will answer these questions.
To get involved, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The Oldman Watershed Council is a non-profit organization and a voice for the Oldman watershed. The OWC represents the voices of all stakeholders and partners in order to seek balanced, practical solutions that respect the priorities of our watershed.