Opinion: Goal of protecting the Bighorn has a long history

Two O’Clock Ridge near Cline River, Alta., is shown in this undated handout photo. Adam Linnard / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The current proposal regarding the Bighorn backcountry not only addresses the recent debate about land use in the region; it culminates a long history of conservation proposals in the region.

Contrary to claims that the proposal is somehow new and a modern threat to long-time activities in the area, the idea to protect the Bighorn is — as the saying goes — as old as the hills.

Defending the Bighorn has been a priority for governments and Albertans for much of the last century. The need to prevent industry and other threats from jeopardizing the water source for scores of prairie communities, and to protect the area’s unique wilderness, was well-known even before the province was born.

The Bighorn Backcountry is a vast expanse of magnificent forest, alpine meadows, cascading rivers, and rolling grasslands skirting the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The North Saskatchewan River — from which Edmonton and many other communities draw most of their water supply — originates there, and the area’s forests and streams are critical habitat to many iconic and threatened species, such as grizzly bears, wolverines, bull trout and bighorn sheep.

The proposal would see as much as 3,800 square kilometres along the eastern borders of Banff and Jasper National Parks protected as parks and recreation areas, as well as a new, large, adjacent public land-use zone managed for responsible recreation.

Opponents have argued that off-road vehicles, industry, and unrestricted camping have been sustainable activities in the Bighorn for years. New park designations with their accompanying regulations, they say, would upend the way people have always done things in the area.

Yet, recognition of the need to protect the Bighorn has a long history of its own. As far back as the late 1800s, the early boundaries of Jasper National Park and Rocky Mountains Park (now Banff National Park) included a large portion of the Bighorn. Only when the configuration of the parks was finalized decades later was the Bighorn piece left out, and only under the understanding that the province, rather than the feds, would protect it.

The Bighorn became part of the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve in the early 1900s. The designation was part of a larger effort to protect and manage older forests while safeguarding watersheds that supply the often-parched Prairies from here to Manitoba.

In the 1970s, Peter Lougheed’s government declared “a minimum of 70 per cent of the Eastern Slopes Region will be maintained in present natural or wilderness areas.” An Eastern Slopes policy was created and most of the Bighorn was zoned as out-of-bounds to off-road vehicles and industry.

That changed in the 1980s. Revisions to the policy opened the door to oil and gas development, and off-road vehicle recreation increased in the area despite restrictions. A few years later, new efforts to manage this access through the creation of the Bighorn Wildland Recreation Area in 1986 were unsuccessful, lacking legal teeth. The genie was out of the bottle, and guidelines were routinely ignored.

This all led to the implementation of the Bighorn Backcountry Access Management Plan in 2002, which became the guiding framework for the Bighorn and is still in effect today. The plan sets out clear rules for camping, trail riding and off-road vehicles, but its recognition of official designated trails means these vehicles still legally ride through critical habitat and wildlife zones that were never designed to accommodate them.

The Regional Advisory Council (RAC) for the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan, comprised of a diverse array of stakeholders from throughout the region, was convened in 2014 to provide the government with recommendations on which areas should be protected within this new plan.

Their conclusions were released in May 2018, and included the Bighorn region as a proposed conservation area with consensus. The combined provincial park boundaries currently proposed by the government line up with these recommendations extremely closely, with 94.4 per cent of the area aligning with the RAC recommendations.

If history is any judge, Albertans believe the Bighorn deserves better than the current situation. The province and its people have championed the conservation and protection of forests and headwaters along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains since the days of Queen Victoria.

This sentiment still rings true today, with recent polling showing that 73 per cent of Albertans support the government’s proposal to protect the Bighorn Country. The idea is a legacy of Alberta’s past; it is also crucial to Alberta’s future.

The current Bighorn proposal would help make this a reality. The creation of these protected areas would not only honour Canada’s commitment to the world, it would honour the history of this province. A park in the Bighorn is an idea whose time has come.

Christopher Smith is parks co-ordinator and Kecia Kerr is executive director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Northern Alberta Chapter.