A couple years ago I hired a local contractor to put in a water line and cistern on our property. Afterwards, he hung around for a while to visit. We shared a few hunting stories and talked about our families. Then we got onto the subject of off-highway vehicles.
“We like to take our quads into the west Castle,” he said. “We go back as far as we can and set up a camp, do some fishing and some hiking. It’s like heaven back in there.”
I said I didn’t like OHVs because of the damage they have done to so many of my family’s favourite places. Rather than take offense, he agreed vigorously. “It’s disgusting what some of those guys get away with. They ruin it for everyone.”
I haven’t seen him since the Alberta government’s recent announcement of final boundaries for the new Castle parks and its decision to phase out OHV use from the area. I suspect he’s not very happy. I wouldn’t be. I grew up in a family that drove as far back as they could, set up camp and enjoyed the outdoors too. In those days, of course, there were no OHVs but the roads were pretty marginal. It was close to the same thing. So I know what he’s lost. And of course, I know what Alberta has gained – two of the most spectacular new parks in the country. The government made a hard decision, and the right decision, in deciding to manage the new parks to the highest standard of land and water protection and to support muscle-powered, instead of motor-powered, recreation.
Predictably, though, OHV users are up in arms. They are understandably indignant that in spite of conscientious efforts by responsible user groups like the Crowsnest Quad Squad to repair muddied stream crossings and promote better behaviour, their activity is being shut down completely.
Many among them see it as the thin of edge of the wedge – the beginning of a government agenda to shut down off-roading all up and down the Eastern Slopes.
In some ways, frankly, that might be a good idea. Forty years of irresponsible mismanagement by the previous government brought us to the point where off-roaders have not one purpose-built, sustainable touring trail anywhere on our public lands. Instead, they have been left to use abandoned seismic cutlines, old logging trails, pipeline rights of way, cattle trails and anything else they could squeeze their machines through. Even though it is illegal to operate their vehicles in streams, the government spent decades looking the other way to the point where many off-roaders now assume that their mud-bogging is legal. It isn’t.
Once-lovely trout streams are muddied after each summer rain, scenic vistas are sliced and diced with eroding gullies, and those who care about land and stream health increasingly find themselves with nowhere to go that isn’t trashed. It’s a mess. But here’s the thing: responsible OHV operators hate that mess as much as the rest of us.
It didn’t have to be like this. And the solution isn’t shutting down OHV use either.
Alberta’s new government has made some tough but necessary decisions – like making the new Castle-area parks real parks rather than motorized playgrounds. But now it’s time to do something for Albertans who enjoy motorized off-road recreation.
A good start would be to build a few truly world-class OHV touring trails – outside of our new world-class parks and away from streams and sensitive habitats – that give Alberta’s off-roaders the quality riding experiences they deserve, but that the previous government never bothered to provide.
Kevin Van Tighem