Protecting What We Love

Editor's Note: On March 27 the Government of Alberta released the much anticipated draft Livingstone - Porcupine Hills Land Footprint and Recreation Management Plans for public feedback. These plans will determine how public land is used, including on the weekend, by you. So have your say and complete the two online surveys by April 26. In this blog, guest blogger Jordan Pinkster shares his take on the draft plans.

I have had the privilege of spending most of my life exploring the streams, rivers and wild areas of southwestern Alberta. Of these special places, the upper Oldman River is where I truly find peace. People find solitude in a lot of different ways, but my escape includes a fly rod, a box of dry flies, and some hungry cutthroat trout.

These special places shape who we are and how we view the world. Spending time in the upper Oldman has given me a strong appreciation for Alberta’s fish and wildlife while reminding me just how lucky I am to live in this part of the world. But spending time in these areas has also reminded me of our collective responsibility to ensure we can enjoy these places for generations to come. In order for that to happen, there needs to be serious reflection on how we utilize these lands.

Fly fishing in the Upper Oldman.  Photo by Jordan Pinkster.  

Fly fishing in the Upper Oldman. Photo by Jordan Pinkster. 

When I think of “The Alberta Advantage” I don’t automatically think about low tax rates or employment opportunities. I generally think about Alberta’s stunning physical beauty and the opportunities I have to enjoy it. But it is becoming more apparent that we are loving these areas to death. For far too long recreational activities in the eastern slopes have lacked suitable management and infrastructure. As such, many activities have become environmental liabilities.

The eastern slopes should be a place for off-highway vehicle users, campers, anglers, hunters, hikers and everyone in between. But in order for that to happen, activities need to be supported accordingly. Under the current framework that simply isn’t possible.

Southern Alberta has grown significantly in the last 40 years. In 1980, southern Alberta was home to roughly 700,000 people. By 2016 that number had more than doubled. While population growth has largely been accepted as a positive thing, it also comes with challenges. One of the biggest challenges has been increased land use pressure in the eastern slopes.

The eastern slopes are home to a number of iconic river systems that provide more than 80% of Alberta’s drinking water. This area is also home to a number of native fish and wildlife species that have been facing considerable challenges over the last number of decades. Sadly, more people means more pressure. Ecosystems are not going to suddenly become more resilient because twice as many people now live a few hours’ drive away. As pressure increases in an area, management plans become necessities.

The way Albertans enjoy these areas has changed over the past decades. Today we see a considerably higher volume of off-highway vehicle (OHV) users and random campers that have had some serious impacts on the land. The OHVs and recreation vehicles of today are different from the vehicles of the past; they are heavier, more powerful, and encounter fewer impassable barriers.

In 1950 aerial surveying identified 177 stream crossings in the upper Oldman watershed. By 2001 this number had grown to 2803 crossings. Today it is estimated that there are close to 4000 OHV crossings. Without appropriate management, supporting OHV use has become increasingly challenging.

Recreational users have been asking for robust management plans for decades. Responsible users recognize that if we truly love these areas we need to be prepared to protect them. On March 27, 2018 Alberta Environment & Parks (AEP) released the draft management plans for the Livingstone and Porcupine Hills. The draft management plan the product of two years of stakeholder consultation with groups that have a vested interest in the area. There is also a public consultation period for the plan that will remain open until April 26, 2018.

The Upper Oldman.  Photo by Marc Fossi.  

The Upper Oldman. Photo by Marc Fossi. 

The Livingstone and Porcupine Hills comprise some of the highest pressure recreation areas in the entire province. Getting this plan right is critically important, and this draft management plan is a step in the right direction. Alberta Environment and Parks is looking to correct some of the mistakes of the past while setting a new precedent for responsible land use that focuses on a science-based approach that embeds a precautionary principle that streamlines the process to protect habitat.

Here are some of the key highlights of the plan from my perspective:

  • Proactive OHV trail design. Trails are being planned before vehicles begin using the networks. Historically, OHV trails were never truly created for the purpose of motorized recreational vehicles. Much of our OHV trail network consists of repurposed seismic lines, forestry roads or pipeline right of ways. Most of these linear disturbances were never designed to be permanent. This draft management plan has outlined future trail networks that will be supported by appropriate infrastructure with important setbacks from critical habitat for fish and other wildlife.
  • Establishment of trail density thresholds. AEP is proposing using scientifically established thresholds that would limit trail densities throughout the management area. When trail networks expand and become braided, they are nearly impossible to manage appropriately. The denser these trail networks become, the more damage they cause to habitat. Under the new framework there would be a maximum allowed trail density. This ensures we can support the approved trail network and mitigate some of the negative environmental impacts associated with linear disturbances.
  • Support for random camping opportunities. Random camping is a unique opportunity offered in the eastern slopes, but it can cause problems. A short drive down the Forestry Trunk Road will reveal some of the big challenges with random camping: RV “villages” that remain in the same place for months at a time, littering, the expansion of trail networks, soil compaction and erosion of water quality. Random camping should still have a place in the Livingstone/Porcupine Hills area, but it needs to be better supported. By establishing designated zones, we can better manage the footprint of random camping.
  • Focus on watershed protection. Healthy watersheds are a resource worth protecting. Deteriorating riparian areas in our headwaters can contribute to poor water quality, flood risk and droughts. By investing in the protection of these areas, we benefit recreational users and downstream communities that rely on clean water.

Albertans who care about this area are encouraged to participate in the public consultation process. Frankly, we need to see more of these comprehensive management plans. Unfettered land use is not a sustainable plan for the future. AEP has offered a draft management plan that balances the legitimate interests of recreational users with our obligation to protect the places that make Alberta so special.

If we truly care about these special places, we need to ensure they remain intact for the next generation of Albertans. We cannot make that happen if we continue down our current path. I am happy to put my support behind this plan, and I hope other recreational users do the same.

Jordan Pinkster is a lifelong Albertan and currently serves as the Angling Chair for the Alberta Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.