Editor's Note: I bet you were wondering how long it would be before we got a guest blog in from someone on the topic of OHV use in the backcountry. This is the first one we've received, and we do welcome submissions from anyone with a thoughtful, respectful point of view on this (or any other) watershed issue. The following does NOT necessarily reflect the views of the OWC - it is a GUEST POST. Remember, the OWC is a stakeholder-based, NEUTRAL forum for ALL voices to be heard. Today we're hearing from Jordan Pinkster, who is a born and raised Albertan who is passionate about preserving Alberta's natural beauty. He is an avid fly fisher, outdoorsman, and conservationist.
To date, fewer than 2000 people have bothered to respond formally to the Castle Plan, yet discussion on social media is huge. If you want to have a say, please contribute to the process and take the time (it requires only about 5 minutes to do - and is an easy click-to-answer process).
Please take the time to comment on the Castle Park Management Draft. It is important that everyone with an interest in the Castle provide their feedback to the Government of Alberta. You can do so here: https://talkaep.alberta.ca/CastleManagementPlan?gclid=CKfvhPDv0dECFQ5EfgodnPQNFA
It’s Time We Got Serious About Protecting Alberta’s Headwaters
On January 20, 2017 the Government of Alberta announced the new boundaries of the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and the Castle Provincial Park. It was also announced that off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation use would be phased out of the area despite previous suggestions there would be a place for OHVs in the Castle region. This decision has not been without controversy.
OHV groups are concerned about the future of their activity and are frustrated with the one-eighty performed by the provincial government. The OHV community suggests they were not properly consulted in this process, but I see that as a matter of perspective. While they may not have been specifically consulted on the government’s change of heart, they were certainly at the table throughout the rest of the process. Effective consultation ensures you have an opportunity to have a say, it does not guarantee that you get your way.
Despite some of the criticisms being directed at the province, I believe this is the right decision. Phasing OHV use out of the Castle is backed by sound science and frankly, it is the right thing to do. Providing effective protection for these areas will be incredibly difficult with the presence of OHVs. Partial closures will still leave the door open for unauthorized use of trails in sensitive areas. If we are going to provide protection, we have to get serious.
Decades of misuse has normalized bad behaviour in our headwaters. Trails that have been authorized for decades should never have been there in the first place. It’s really hard to lay the blame at the feet of the OHV community when the behaviour has become institutionally engrained. Unfortunately for many, what is right and what is wrong has become clouded. It’s about time we fixed that. The province has made it clear that they will phase out these trails over a three to five year period. During this time they will begin consulting with OHV groups and constructing trails on public lands in less sensitive areas. That sure seems like a reasonable compromise to me.
The current public land use dynamic in our eastern slopes is broken and we have to do better. We need to encourage responsible recreation use while demonstrating good stewardship. Good stewardship cannot just be lip service; it has to have meaningful outcomes. Numerous OHV associations have been in the media over the last few weeks – they seem to be saying all of the right things and recognizing that a problem exists. But are they prepared to walk the talk? These associations point to the reality that a component of their community is ruining this for everyone and that most riders are really responsible folks – but they do not want to give up riding in these areas. That is not how this works. If we want to truly be responsible, we have to understand where this activity is appropriate and where it is not.
What we need at this stage is some triage. First we need to stop the bleeding, second we need to evaluate the problem and third we need to apply treatment. I think that can be accomplished through revisions in our public land use framework. It will not be a painless exercise and it will require compromises, but it is entirely necessary.
Here's my vision for what a new framework could look like:
1) Creation of specific OHV use areas. I do not believe that mixed use trails work. Areas with active OHV use are not friendly places for other users. Hikers don't want to share the space, mountain bikers get pushed off the trails and horses are easily startled by OHVs. It's time to segregate these uses. We also need to segment OHV users into two groups - trail riders and high performance riders. I believe the high performance riders are the ones causing a lot of the damage (mud bogging, ripping through creeks, etc). We should create a network of world class engineered touring trails that stay clear of swamps, bogs and streams while still offering scenic views and challenges for riders. We should also create designated "go for a rip" areas complete with jumps, artificial mud bogs, etc. If some folks absolutely insist on using their machines this way, let's give them a controlled environment to do it.
2) Transfer operations of trails to OHV associations. This is a framework that works quite well in other jurisdictions. An association would control and maintain a trailhead. Anyone accessing that trail needs to be a member of the association and pay to use the infrastructure. The association would control access but also maintain a level of stewardship over the resource. The trails would need to be periodically inspected to ensure compliance. This ensures that the continued maintenance of these trails is not on the backs of taxpayers and gives a sense of ownership for these associations. Those that use the resource should be the one paying to maintain it.
3) OHV use in sensitive riparian habitats needs to be closed. We need to allow the land to heal. I understand this is a difficult one for the OHV community to come to terms with it, but the science suggests it is absolutely necessary. There needs to be an understanding that many of the trails OHVs have been using for the last number of decades are inappropriate. This could mean closures of entire trails or detours/spot closures of specific areas on trails.
4) Creation of an OHV public land licence. A specific licence would be required for recreation OHV use on public lands. The program would need to have full cost recovery - after admin costs, 50% would go towards trail rehab/construction/recovery and 50% would go towards more enforcement. Looking at the regulations facing most other public land recreation opportunities, I think this is entirely reasonable especially if we ear-mark funds back into the resource. The revenues ear-marked for trail rehab/construction/recovery must be put into a specific fund that would only be dedicated for trails.
5) Increase our enforcement capacity SIGNIFICANTLY. We need enforcement on trails and in our most sensitive areas. We can pay for this through the OHV licence, but I would also suggest it is time for increases in the cost of a fishing licence. The increased costs would be entirely diverted into enforcement funds.
6) Penalties for public land use infractions need to be ramped up. The fines need to be greater and we need to have less tolerance for repeat offenders. Repeat offenders should have their vehicles seized. The legislation needs to be strong enough that a judge won't overturn a seizure where deemed appropriate. The penalties need to reflect the incredible cost of the damage being committed. It is time we made examples of the few that are ruining this for the many.
This can be a process that we all benefit from. This is not a political issue; good stewardship does not need to be partisan. Our headwaters are not just areas where we are fortunate enough to play. They represent more than 80% of our fresh water supply and act as our natural buffers against major flooding events. Protecting these areas is in the best interests of each and every Albertan. It is time for us to do the right thing.