Bold moves are only gutsy if they come with some risk. It was risky, for example, for the Alberta government to declare that it would close all off-highway trails in the Castle area in the southwest corner of the province within five years.
The risk for this government is that the animosity it faces from off-highway enthusiasts – who have used the Castle area as a playground for years – will spread more broadly, putting the NDP government’s re-election hopes in greater peril.
But with every risk there is also reward, and that comes from the gratitude felt by the many Albertans who have witnessed the destruction of our delicate wild spaces with increasingly alarm. The riverbeds and waterways of the Castle region simply can’t be sustained with the level of abuse they have experienced in recent years as a result of reckless “mudders” who tear up riverbeds with their powerful machines.
And, of course, it’s not just in the Castle. From the Ghost region to Nordegg to Rocky Mountain House, the havoc wreaked by some quadders, dirt bikers and mud-boggers is heartbreaking to behold.
This conflict has been years in the making, and reflects a stark dichotomy within the off-highway vehicle (OHV) community. Responsible OHV riders, represented by the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association, have been taking a co-operative approach with government and trying to encourage responsible recreational riding. There are others, however, who show little regard for the areas they rip through. They’re spoiling the fun for everyone.
There’s another factor compounding the problem of OHV use in Alberta, and that’s the relentless growth in our population. When I arrived in this province 15 years ago, there were three million people. Today, in spite of recent economic setbacks, the population hovers around 4.2 million – 40 percent more people.
That pace of growth puts not just our infrastructure under pressure, it’s also tough on our wild lands.
Many of those newcomers naturally have a variety of approaches to outdoor recreation. Some love their OHVs and were delighted to learn the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies had areas wide open to them.
As the population steadily grew, previous governments turned a blind eye to the impact of OHVs on increasingly besieged wild spaces.
Putting off the inevitable simply meant that the pain of a crackdown would have an even greater sting.
Two things now need to happen. The first is that off-roaders must get over their sense of grievance and work with the province to identify trails that allow members to have fun without ruining the land. OHVs are not being banned – their use is simply being eliminated from an area they should never have been in. The province, for its part, must work with these riders in good faith.
The other thing that needs to happen is those so-called “quiet recreationalists” – the people who prefer a Nikon or Canon to a Polaris or Yamaha – need to speak up in support of the government’s visionary decision to stand up for the land. They can do that by simply saying thanks but, more importantly, they need to get out into these lands, experience them first-hand and share the experience with others.
The Castle region, as important as it is, has taken on greater significance than the region itself. The move to protect it is a decision that says much about the kind of province Albertans want their children to experience in the future.
And it says that one group – OHV riders – may have rights, but those rights don’t eclipse the rights of others who long for a chance to explore Alberta’s wild spaces.
As more and more people move to this beautiful province, the decision to put reasonable limits on the use of OHVs will prove as visionary as Peter Lougheed’s decision to create the Kananaskis Country park system. This generation will benefit. Future generations, however, will be the greatest winners of all.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.