OWC and the Castle – Input based on Consensus

There has been a lot of talk going around lately … talk about the Castle Parks. Some are thrilled about the Draft Castle Parks Management Plan others, not so much. So what about the Oldman Watershed Council? Where does the OWC “stand”? In an effort to be open and transparent, we have included our exact input to the Government of Alberta here.

The OWC is a Watershed Planning and Advisory Council (WPAC) - one of 11 Councils in the province, mandated to provide a platform for ALL stakeholders in the Oldman watershed. So asking what the OWC’s “stance” is on the Castle Parks Draft Management Plan is perhaps not the right question to ask because, for most of the Draft Plan, the OWC does not have a stance –but our stakeholders do!

There are however, parts of the Castle Parks Draft Management Plan that the OWC does support, and can support, based on previous stakeholder consultation on the subject that informed the development of the OWC’s Headwaters Action Plan (HAP). This in-depth stakeholder process is what got us to where we are today. The OWC is a platform for all voices, but that does not necessarily lead to supporting all agendas.

Examples of a few of the various land uses in the Castle region

Examples of a few of the various land uses in the Castle region

What does that mean? Well, let’s start with a bit of history for those of you who may not have been around…

In 2008, a group of local citizens and stakeholders of the Castle came together to determine the “best designation for the Castle”. Participants in this group were self-selected and those with an active interest in Castle Special Place were invited to participate and contribute what time they could in the development of the initiative.

Three overlapping circles of participation within the larger group were formed which differed mostly in time commitments. The highest commitment level was placed on those participants of the Working Group – 35 organizations, businesses, disposition holders, community leaders and adjacent landholders, and 2 observers – who met every 3-4 weeks over a year. The OWC was part of this group.

The Working Group (WG) developed an initiative for the Castle through this process – the Castle Special Place Citizens’ Initiative October 2009. The WG was guided by an independent facilitator and decisions were made based on consensus. The WG shared information through a variety of channels both with the larger Citizens’ Initiative and with the public.

It was concluded, after 13 months of deliberation, that 99% of the Castle Special Place area should be a Wildland under the province’s wildland park legislation. The remaining 1% of Castle Special Place was at the time, the existing West Castle Wetland Ecological Reserve and the five current Provincial Recreation Areas (PRAs), totalling about 12 km2 or one 1% of the Castle Special Place. For details on the proposed boundaries, see the full Citizens’ Initiative.

Once the draft was complete, it was sent out to an additional 102 stakeholders for feedback. Many comments on the draft specified agreement with the conceptual proposal in principle and the recommendations. No negative comments were received. The OWC responded to the draft through the OWC’s Board of Directors – therefore that the stakeholders within the Oldman watershed represented by the Board, agreed that the designation of a Wildland Park and Provincial Park as listed above were supported. The Castle region is Alberta’s most biologically diverse area and provides an unsurpassed 1/3 of the annual water flow for the Oldman basin. The OWC found that a Park designation would support the protection, management and restoration of the Castle area.

Castle Special Place

Castle Special Place

More recently, speaking with many different user groups and stakeholders in the watershed, there is still a demonstrated support for the park itself. Polls taken after the release of the Citizens’ Initiative, yet prior to the official Park designation, indicate a support level of 74-87% in favor of the Wildland Park designation for 99% of the Castle Special Place. In a letter to the Minister of Environment and Parks in August of 2015, the OWC wrote the following as per request of the Minister for feedback on the Parks designation of Castle Special Place:

“Wildland Park designation is important to local citizens because it allows for long term protection and cannot be easily reversed. A Wildland Park designation allows for mixed use, including motorized recreation on designated trails, cattle grazing and non-motorized recreation. It does not allow for commercial scale timber harvesting but the forest would be managed by your Ministry through other means, such as grazing, selective harvesting or controlled burns. A Wildland Park does not allow for new oil and gas activity but honours current leases, such as with Shell who has already announced they are shutting down operations. Compensation may be required for some existing industrial leases. ”

All of this has led us to the recent release of the Draft Management Plan for the Castle Parks on January 20, 2017. Prior to the Draft Plan release, the Government of Alberta (GoA) formed two Working Groups – an Ecological Working Group (EWG) and a Land Use Working Group (LUWG) – to provide input into the management planning approach and decisions.

GoA Announcement of Draft Castle Management Plan - January 20, 2017

GoA Announcement of Draft Castle Management Plan - January 20, 2017

The EWG and LUWG consisted of non-government organizations, scientists, industry, ranchers, landowners, user groups and organizations, academia and MD representatives to name a few. The OWC participated as a member of the EWG. The groups met a total of five times prior to the release of the Draft Plan, from August 31, 2016 – October 18, 2016, and once more after the draft were released on February 16, 2017.

The five sessions involved presentations from numerous GoA staff and group discussions on topics applicable to the Castle including grazing, wildlife and fisheries management, critical habitat, species at risk, angling, hunting, landscape sensitivity, Marxan Modeling, recreation and tourism to name a few.

As expected, there was an array of opinions within the group discussions on what the Castle should look like when addressing these specific topics. The groups last met on October 18, 2016 at which time we were informed that the next meeting would be a review of the Draft. On February 16, 2017 the groups met to discuss the publically released Draft Castle Parks Management Plan.

Throughout the planning process for the Castle Parks, the OWC informed the GoA on where our stakeholders stood on the topics of discussion which came out of the OWC’s Headwaters Action Plan (HAP). In the HAP process, the OWC engaged in multiple stakeholder sessions before deciding on Indicators and Target Actions addressed in the HAP.

Figure 1: Headwaters Action Plan Community and Stakeholder Integrated Process

Figure 1: Headwaters Action Plan Community and Stakeholder Integrated Process

What was said and agreed upon in 2013-14, is what the OWC can support now. OWC’s input is based on what stakeholders agreed to by consensus. The Indicators chosen by the OWC through the stakeholder engagement sessions are: 1) Presence and abundance of fish, especially native populations (an indicator of biodiversity and watershed integrity) 2) Density of Linear Features 3) Aquatic Invasive Species

Each of the above Indicators has a set of Target Actions attached to them which the OWC has been addressing since the implementation of the HAP. The Headwaters Action Team, a group of stakeholders who have a direct tie to the headwaters of our watershed, are the key drivers in implementation of the HAP and the Target Actions.

With these Indicators identified, the OWC can support items in the Draft Castle Parks Management Plan that directly touch on these Indicators and the Target Actions associated with them. Therefore, anything out of the scope of the HAP cannot be supported nor argued as per the OWC’s stakeholder support.

Through this history of stakeholder engagement, particularly related to the headwaters of the Oldman Watershed and the area that makes up the now Castle Provincial and Wildland Parks, the OWC submitted written feedback on the Draft Castle Management Plan through the public feedback process which many other Albertans participated in as well. As part of the Ecology Working Group for the Castle Parks, no additional written feedback was provided on the Draft. The full recommendations on the Draft Castle Management Plan can be found here.

The GoA originally allowed 60 days for public feedback to be submitted on the Draft. That was later extended to 90 days and three Public Information Sessions were also added in an effort to address stakeholder concerns. Indigenous consultation on the Draft proceeded separately according to the Government of Alberta’s First Nations Consultation Policy on Land Management and Resource Development and associated Guidelines.

Castle River 

Castle River 

Now that the feedback period is closed, the comments and feedback will be reviewed and taken into consideration. The GoA will include revisions to the Draft as necessary in order to reflect public feedback. Once the final Plan is approved, the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park Management Plan and a summary report of the feedback received during the 90-day comment period will be available to the public on the Alberta Parks Consultation Page.

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.

Larin Guenther, Planning Manager