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Province announces plan to officially protect Bighorn Country

Conservation groups are celebrating the announcement of a brand new wildland provincial park on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains that will connect Banff and Jasper national parks.
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The UCP government officially announced a plans to scrap a proposal to protect 4,000 square kilometres of land – Bighorn Country – in the eastern slopes by the NDP.

Conservation groups are celebrating the announcement of a brand new wildland provincial park on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains that will connect Banff and Jasper national parks.

Premier Rachel Notley and Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips officially proposed creating Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park on Friday (Nov. 23).

The proposed 4,000 square kilometre conservation area includes new and expanded provincial parks and protected areas.There will also be a 60-day period for the public to provide feedback about recreation, tourism and conservation opportunities. 

Notley compared the idea of protecting Bighorn Country to that of Kananaskis Country created in the late 1970s.

“Forty years ago, Premier Peter Lougheed created Kananaskis country due to increased pressures on the eastern slopes,” she said. “Now, Kananaskis provides amazing experiences and opportunities, showing that investment in Alberta today mean our children and grandchildren will have wild spaces to enjoy in the future.

“We are asking all Albertans to help us create a place for everyone.”

The idea of Bighorn Country isn’t new, with Albertans lobbying previous governments for protection on the lands for several decades. The area proposed includes a majority of the headwaters for the North Saskatchewan River, which is the source of drinking water for 1.5 million Albertans, including the residents of Edmonton.

It would also protect important landscapes for species at risk like grizzly bears, bull trout and wolverines. The new protections for headwaters and biodiversity were applauded by Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative senior program manager for Alberta Hilary Young.

“We are thinking this is a huge step forward and we are completely celebrating this announcement,” Young said. “It feels as though the government is listening to the people of Alberta and what they are asking for.”

A campaign over the past two-and-a-half years has seen 20,000 letters of support and signatures for the creation of Bighorn Country.

“We are really happy that a good chunk of those headwaters is going to be protected,” Young said, adding there is still work to be done through the public consultation period before the change is officially made and a management plan drafted.

“We are trying hard to make sure people understand they still have a voice in this and their voice is important.”

In addition to a new wildland park, the announcement includes proposals for new land use designations that support continued traditional use of the land by Indigenous Peoples, high-quality outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities.

“This mix of parks, recreation areas and public land-use zones has the potential to be the greatest tourism development opportunity the area has ever seen,” Phillips said. “We know how much Albertans value nature and time spent outdoors.

“This proposal will create new jobs, enhance mountain recreation and preserve the wilds of the Bighorn backcountry for generations to come.”

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Alpine Club of Canada all celebrated the idea of preserving the areas as a gift to outdoor enthusiasts who share a common appreciation for the Rocky Mountains.

"Protection for the Bighorn Wildland and its watershed has been on AWA's agenda for 50 years,” said board member Vivian Pharis. “I've personally worked for it for that long. Now that designation is dangling before us, I feel overwhelming nostalgia.

“The Bighorn is a splendidly wild land, the last of Alberta's Rockies still as they always were. Alberta's best kept secret of nature is about to be both protected and unveiled.”

The proposal, if successful, includes an investment of $40 million over five years in operations and capital infrastructure. It will establish the Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park to allow low impact recreation; creating three new provincial parks – the David Thompson, North Saskatchewan River and Ya Ha Tinda provincial parks – with front-country experiences like campgrounds, hiking, paddling and horseback riding. It will establish three provincial recreation areas to accommodate off-highway vehicle access to designated trails.

There is also expansion of the Shunda Provincial Recreation Area proposed, amending the Kiska/Willson public land use zone and establishing a new West Country public land use zone to permit industrial development such as forestry and energy uses.

In addition to refurbishing 240 existing campsites, the changes will create 150 new ones along with parking lots, trails and staging areas.

Random camping would be allowed, along with the creation of rustic camping spots, similar to the Castle Provincial Park.

Existing designated trails for off highway vehicles would be maintained in the Bighorn, and opportunities for new designated trail systems were proposed.

There is also no change proposed to active industrial leases in the proposed public land use zones and there would not be any forestry tenure within the parks and protected areas.

Go to www.talkaep.alberta.ca to find out more about Bighorn Country, or take part in the online survey.


Tanya Foubert

About the Author: Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert started as a news reporter at the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2006. She won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best news story for her coverage of the 2013 flood. In December 2018, she became editor of the Outlook.
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