BIGHORN – Human waste, target shooting and illegal campfires in Alberta's foothills has led one grassroots conservation group to call for changes.
The Ghost Watershed Alliance Society recently raised concerns about human use after a surge in random camping resulted in elevated environmental damage, risking public health and safety.
“Our public lands are a rich natural landscape that attract people who enjoy the diverse outdoor opportunities that they have to offer," Ghost Watershed Alliance Society officials wrote in a recent report.
"We are on the doorstep of ‘loving it to death’ through overuse of areas that simply do not have the infrastructure or rules in place to prevent serious and escalating damage … we believe there is an urgency to act, highlighted by the recent COVID-19 induced increase in use of local public lands.”
The Ghost wilderness covers about 947 square kilometres of land, with approximately 78 per cent belonging to the Crown. Between June 22 to Aug. 5, volunteers conducted informal site visits at 39 different spots.
The 27-page report, Recreation Issues in the Ghost Watershed – a Focus on Random Camping and Shooting: Then, Now and Next, complied by the society outlines the decades-long problems in the area.
Random camping, which raises the issue of human waste and garbage, illegal campfires that can end up as wildfires when not properly extinguished, along with target shooting that poses problems for public safety and garbage, as targets can range from appliances to electronics and are then left on the lands with the bullet casings.
“I want to emphasize the issues we are seeing this year are not new issues – we have been seeing them for decades,” said society member Sharlene Fritz.
Human waste, RV owners dumping waste fluids directly on the land, bear attractant garbage left behind, still smouldering campfires and cutting live trees, were all documented at the random camping sites in Ghost.
“The longer the problems are left unaddressed, the more difficult the situation will be to reverse,” stated the report.
As part of a watershed that is a source for drinking water for the city of Calgary, Fritz noted that anything left on the lands ends up in the water.
“When you are contaminating your source watershed, costs will be raised for treatment,” she said.
Debris from wildfires washing away into the watershed can also pose a problem.
“Organic and inorganic [wildfire debris] is different for treatment facilities to deal with … it is a real concern and real risk to the safe drinking water of Calgary,” Fritz said.
Highlighting the recent almost 700-hectare Devil’s Head wildfire that broke out during the September long weekend near Black Rock Mountain in Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park that was caused by an abandoned campfire – which is still under investigation – Fritz said the society wants to work with provincial and federal offices to find solutions.
“It is unsafe, irresponsible behaviours happening on the land,” she said.
Earlier this summer during a July 29 press conference, Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon spoke to the overuse concerns in the area, noting it was a trend being seen across the province due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The reality is what is happening is happening across [the province] … we will continue to do our best to manage that with our partner agencies,” Nixon said.
The provincial minister said there are plans for infrastructure investment in the area to deal with long-stand concerns, but did not specify a timeline.
The Ghost Watershed Alliance Society proposed several short-term solutions in its report, including construction of outhouses, construction of an RV dump station, a supply of bear-proof garbage bins and supply of properly sited safe fire rings.
In a recent press release, society officials said the alliance met with Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin earlier this month discussing the potential solutions to address the need for sanitary facilities, effective education and enforcement of existing rules, impacts to Calgary’s regional water supply and the lack of awareness of an evacuation plan for backcountry users in the event of a serious wildfire.
Rosin has not responded to the Outlook’s request for comment, but the Fritz said the MLA agreed to tour the area with a date to be announced.
“What we are really trying to do is highlight some of our problems," Fritz said.
"We want to get some commitment to look at solutions to the neglect our really valuable public lands has been seeing … and to get some strong stakeholder engagement to some of these solutions."