Nature vs. off-road drivers

For reasons unknown in the rational universe, Alberta tops North America (and probably the world) for sales of off-road vehicles. Alberta is also right up there in reports of deaths from the use of quads, ATVs and snowmobiles.

For reasons unknown in the rational universe, Alberta tops North America (and probably the world) for sales of off-road vehicles. Alberta is also right up there in reports of deaths from the use of quads, ATVs and snowmobiles. Barely noticed is the environmental damage caused by Albertans who like to find a piece of wilderness and tear it up.

All that money speaks volumes to our provincial government. Sales of backpacks, tents, canoes and wilderness gear are also brisk in Alberta, but nothing makes noise like four-wheel-drive.

The clear message was given in the consultations while the new 10-year parks strategy was being devised: Albertans want more areas protected as parks. But if Albertans want to protect wilderness, we’ll need to turn to the federal government, which manages the lion’s share of parks wilderness in Alberta, via the national parks.

The rest appears like it’s going to be graded for tour-bus-sized RV campgrounds, pulling trailers loaded with ATVs.

Cindy Ady is the minister responsible for parks, which receive about 8.5 million visitors a year. The province will spend about $85 million on them this year. That means every time somebody visits a provincial park in Alberta, it costs the taxpayer $10.

Considering Alberta’s population is just over 3.6 million, that’s a lot of visits, yet it stands to reason that the number would increase if more of our remaining natural areas were designated as parks.

That’s the plan, actually, to increase the number of park visitors — but without directly planning to increase the numbers of parks.

What critics fear underlies the province’s new parks strategy is an aim to turn parks from a cost item to something more break-even.

(We won’t consider that a family of tourists spends about $100 a day per person, and only a small amount of that is actually in the parks, so the benefit to the Alberta economy from those 8.5 million visits gets spread rather widely.)

But the road to riches is paved in asphalt as far as tourism here is concerned and conservation groups read the subtext of the government’s plan: it’s to attract the drivers pulling trailers loaded with ATVs as far back into the back country as they can get.

Ady is reported to recognise the environmental threat of motorized tourism in sensitive areas. She wants to control the damage as much as possible, by planning off-road trails.

The thinking — supported by the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association — is that a lot of the ATV damage being done now results from not having enough designated trails.

Build the trails and the riders will stay on them, logic seems to say, leaving the rest of the wilderness untouched.

As well, Alberta Wildlife Officers will be empowered to issue tickets and fines to people who go off the trails, right on the spot.

Please, Lord, let us not read about ATV deaths resulting from chases in the back country, involving idiots who think they can outrun a wildlife officer and avoid a ticket.

But the off-road lobby seems confident that designated areas will be set aside for off-roaders to get the most out of their recreational purchases.

Clavin Rakach of the AOHVA referred to this as people who like to “frolic.”

“Those who want to go rip and tear, we have to provide them a place to do that,” he said in an interview.

Well, that helps settle the question of Alberta designating new parks and their proposed uses.

You want nature? That’s a federal responsibility. Or you can always leave the province for your vacation.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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