Damage must stop to Eastern Slopes

There’s a “perfect storm” brewing along of our precious Eastern Slopes at the hands of off-highway vehicle drivers recklessly opening up deep wounds in the environmentally fragile landscapes

There’s a “perfect storm” brewing along of our precious Eastern Slopes at the hands of off-highway vehicle drivers recklessly opening up deep wounds in the environmentally fragile landscapes.

A conservation group has sounded the alarm, and warned that unless the provincial government puts the brakes on unregulated access to these forests, pristine rivers and vulnerable watersheds “immediately,” we are courting a tsunami of devastation beyond recovery. And that’s not over-stating the dilemma.

“Tens of thousands of Albertans are calling for strict limits on off-highway vehicles along Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, and for a ban on OHVs in Alberta’s parks and protected areas,” says the West Athabasca Bioregional Society (in Jasper/Hinton/Edson). “Poor management of the cumulative impacts of industrial developments from oil and gas, forestry and mining along the Eastern Slopes has created the ‘perfect storm’ of unregulated access from OHV users.”

Hinton area rancher and horse-packing guide Rocky Notnes is livid. “OHVs of all types are wreaking havoc in many local areas of land bordering the mountains of Jasper National Park and the Willmore Wilderness Park, all the way to Grande Cache,” says Notnes. “This kind of abuse makes it impossible for other user groups to enjoy the same landscapes.”

Further, habitat fragmentation from industrial and uncontrolled motorized recreation access is imposing a death sentence on Alberta’s native trout species.

The watershed society is part of Alberta’s conservation community that recently called on the government “to take a strong stand on years of unchecked damage to our Eastern Slopes watersheds.” And that includes areas west of Red Deer where negligent conservation practices — nothing short of criminal — have placed two native trout species in peril: the bull and cutthroat.

The bull trout, Alberta’s official provincial fish, has been awarded the unenviable title of “threatened” under the federal government’s “Species At Risk Act.”

And the International Union for Conservation of Nature has named this once-plentiful salmonid to its “Red List of Threatened Species.” Central Alberta old-timers, who cut their baby teeth on West Country fishing trips, once boasted there were so many bull trout at one time “you had to hide behind a tree to bait your hook.”

The iconic cutthroat trout, named for the bright red-orange streak in the fold under its mouth, joins the bull trout as “threatened.”

Further north, in the Athabasca watershed, the unique and rare Athabasca Rainbow Trout, is under federal review to be listed as “endangered.” That’s one step away from extinction. “High intensity industrial and recreational land use impacts on water and wildlife, and the lack of management and protection of Alberta’s headwaters along the Eastern Slope is the foundational issue,” says the society.

Connie Simmons, watershed steward and a former board member of the watershed council, warns “The Eastern Slopes are essential as Alberta’s water tower. Impacts on the source of water for the province and beyond need to be addressed immediately.”

Continued abuse of our Eastern Slopes is out of control, the new kid on the block being OHVs. Bob Scammell, Advocate outdoors columnist recently named to the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, calls those ripping up the West Country with these mini-tanks “kamikaze riders.”

Traditionally in Central Alberta, the May holiday weekend sees these riders emerge from hibernation and launch an all-out assault in our wilds — leaving in their wake destroyed vegetation in non-trail areas, erosion, and damaged fish-spawning streams, to name just a few. And the convoy heading out of the woods after the weekend with their OHVs caked in Eastern-Slope mud is enough evidence to back the Athabasca society’s call for tough, new laws.

This continued abuse — now unmanaged and out of control — is straining Mom Nature in healing “critical biodiversity and watershed health values,” the society warns. Such critical intrusion is also impacting Alberta’s fragile woodland caribou and grizzly bear populations.

Among the recommendations by the Athabasca society, it’s asking the government to “ban OHVs from all protected areas and parks in Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, and from areas identified as Prime Protection and Critical Wildlife Zones.”

Further, and this might be a tough pill to swallow for Central Alberta OHV riders, the society asks: “Reduce existing road and motorized trail density in Alberta’s Eastern Slopes to scientifically defensible levels.”

Ohhhh, yes! Gone are the good days when our precious West Country was largely inaccessible except by foot traffic or old logging roads. Pristine, mountain-fed streams teamed with trout and fresh-caught fish sputtered and curled in the cast-iron frying pan while a can of Libby’s Deep-Browned Pork and Beans bubbled beside the campfire. And to finish off a perfect evening meal — a cup of coffee or tea made from for-real-mountain-stream water. Back then it was safe to drink.

Our province cannot afford to remain obtuse and inactive when addressing the public’s concern over the health of our Eastern Slopes. Of late the government has been airing TV ads showing the awesome and undisputed natural wonders this province embraces and what we have to offer to tourists. But the government must remain cognizant of the fact such natural beauty blossoms only in a healthy biodiversity system.

And that includes our Eastern Slopes.

Rick Zemanek is a former Red Deer Advocate editor.