Storm Over The Castle

The fight for a real park.

By Kevin Van Tighem

It should have been easy but it wasn’t.

It should have been easy because the headwaters of the Castle, Carbondale and Waterton rivers were always meant to be a park. Until 1928 the windy mountain valleys southwest of Pincher Creek actually were a park: part of Waterton Lakes National Park. That year, the federal and provincial governments agreed to shrink the boundaries of Waterton to include just the scenery around the Waterton Lakes and the streams draining into them. Everything else became provincial land.

But the Castle was meant to be a park. Its mountain landscape—including some of the planet’s oldest sedimentary rock—is spectacular. The region is the most biologically diverse in our province, hosting more than half of the vascular plant species found in Alberta, including at least 140 rare ones. Wildlife—from mountain goats and bighorn sheep to wolverines and grizzlies—abounds. Threatened trout species thrive in some of the prettiest streams in the world.

Unprotected, it was soon under threat. Shell Canada found natural gas under the Castle in the late 1950s and began building roads and drilling wells. Locals who had kept their backyard paradise secret for years grew alarmed at the pace of industrial development. So in 1968 the Pincher Creek Fish and Game Association and others petitioned the Alberta government to restore the Castle’s protection.

Six years later the province’s department of Recreation, Parks and Wildlife recommended that the Castle be granted provincial park status. But that wasn’t going to happen; Alberta wanted the hydrocarbon royalties. The government decided to develop Kananaskis Country instead.

Gas well roads and pipelines opened the once pristine Castle wilds to the next, and arguably greater, threat: off-highway vehicles. OHVs were rare when I first ventured into the high country in the 1970s, but as technology improved and oil and gas wealth made the machines affordable, more and more Albertans began to use them for access and play. Mud holes and eroding gullies metastasized throughout the Castle. Sediment from trails clogged streams after every rain. Landscape abuse became the new normal, not just there but on public land across Alberta.

A government-mandated Castle Access Management Plan in 1992 restricted off-roaders to a few designated routes. They ignored it. Nobody enforced it. Things got worse.

A group of local ranchers, outfitters, outdoors people and tourism operators—the Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition—laboured for decades to persuade the government that the Castle’s landscape was too precious to be sold out, carved up and vandalized by noisy motor vehicles. But after the release of its 1992 weak-soup access plan, the government’s only tangible action was to invite Spray Lakes Sawmills to clear-cut the area’s timber. It was just the way Alberta had become.

The NDP went into Alberta’s 2015 election expecting to lose. Maybe that’s why their platform was so ambitious. Among their promises: to protect the Castle area as a park again. After their surprise win, Shannon Phillips, a fiercely intelligent NDP veteran, was appointed Minister of Environment and Parks.

Her department promptly announced plans to restore protection to the Castle. Its first step, in September 2015, was to shut down logging. In February 2017 the government announced final boundaries for a provincial park and a wildland park in the Castle. The draft management plan called for all OHV use to be phased out.

Enraged off-roaders responded with protest rallies, letters to the editor, hate mail to the Minister and Premier. “The thing is,” said noted biologist Lorne Fitch, who has spent much of his career dealing with the landscape and stream damage caused by off-roading, “these guys never had anyone say no to them before. And it was an NDP minister, a woman, saying no.”

In 2015 Phillips had said OHV use would continue in the parks. That was before she consulted a broad panel of science experts and before Albertans, few of whom use OHVs for recreation, responded to the government’s request for public comments. It quickly became clear that for the Castle parks to be truly protected, off-roading had to go. For finally making the right choice, Phillips endured weeks of insults and threats by a furious minority who thought bully tactics would force her to back down. They were wrong.

“The public doesn’t really like change,” Phillips once told me in an interview, quoting former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney. “They like the outcome of change, but they don’t like change.” The outcome of this change is that, almost a century later, Albertans have won park status back for the spectacular Castle area. Even better, the brief, ugly era of OHV overuse in our headwaters may finally be ending. #

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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