EDMONTON — Parks across the province are facing the same overcrowding and environmental damage as seen in a west-central Alberta wilderness area, says Environment Minister Jason Nixon.
“The situation taking place west of Rocky Mountain House and Sundre is no different than what we’re seeing all across the province,” Nixon said Wednesday.
He wouldn’t commit to an immediate increase in facilities or enforcement for the Bighorn backcountry, despite concerns raised by his own department.
That’s a go-ahead for the people who are causing the problems, said New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt.
“The minister has effectively given them the green light to keep doing that kind of thing.”
Earlier this week, The Canadian Press reported on a provincial committee that oversees the Bighorn, a vast section of mostly unserviced backcountry once considered for a park.
The committee’s report — and interviews with local people —described an area swarmed by tens of thousands of campers who cut trees, strew garbage and trespass. The report described usage levels as “insane.”
It said garbage and human feces litter the landscape, despite large dumpsters installed by one community.
Area First Nations said they can no longer hunt or gather plants. Sacred sites have been disturbed.
Volunteer search-and-rescue services said demand has increased manyfold.
The report said firepits pock the bush and campers shoot firearms along power cutlines. Campers set up for the weekend, leave everything and return five days later.
Enforcement in the area is limited to two rangers and an RCMP detachment more than 100 kilometres away.
The report said rangers are “having a difficult time with people who are wound pretty tight.”
Nixon said every provincial park and recreation area is busy as Albertans look for a safe way to enjoy a summer with their families.
“What is taking place in that location in the eastern slopes is exactly what we have taking place all across the province because of COVID. We’ll continue to do our best to manage that.”
The government has provided help with garbage collection, he added. Additional enforcement, bathrooms and parking pads will have to wait.
“We continue to work closely with the conservation officer enforcement division in Alberta Environment and Parks, as well as with our partners in (Alberta) Justice, with Fish and Wildlife and the RCMP,” Nixon said.
“We’ll continue to move forward through our North Saskatchewan regional planning process in that area, which will result in some infrastructure investment to deal with some of the concerns.”
Schmidt said Albertans need better enforcement and facilities now in order to be able to enjoy their landscape.
“(You should) build the infrastructure that encourages good behaviour. You need things like outhouses and garbage bins.”
He noted the previous NDP government had planned a wildland park in the Bighorn area.
“We would have started (building) last summer. Given the pandemic, we would have stepped up investment in this kind of recreational infrastructure all across the province.
“This shows how high the demand is for parks.”
Nixon did not provide a timeline for when his government would start putting facilities in to the Bighorn. The planning he referred to has been going on for a decade.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2020
— Follow @row1960 on Twitter
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press