It can be difficult to take in the entire scope of a May long weekend in the back country, unless you’re viewing it from above.
What’s the saying? You can’t see the forest for the trees?
Despite numbers being down this year for people driving out to the West Country — estimates range from 20,000 to 30,000 visitors last weekend, as compared to 60,000 people some years — their impact on the region was still felt.
It is surprisingly easy to hide the masses over the 5,204,066 acres of the Rocky Wildfire Management Area, plus a section of Clearwater County that comprise the West Country, west of Rocky Mountain House. It has been a popular area for people from across the province to camp, explore and enjoy for generations, and the Victoria Day long weekend is always the busiest time of the year.
While everyone is always welcome, the swath of garbage and destruction to the land left behind is not.
Local authorities have made a concerted effort over the last seven years to change things, and finally it appears the campaign is starting to pay off.
“It takes a generation,” said Don Livingston, acting approvals manager for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD). “Those guys that we’ve been pushing this on for eight years are growing up and are knowing that this is the way you behave.”
That’s not to say the job is done. In fact, there were still a number of pockets where land was disrespected.
More and more campers are setting up their tents and trailers not in natural clearings, but on oil lease sites and pipeline and utility corridors. This creates added safety and environmental risks for everyone.
It’s not an isolated issue — flying overhead in a helicopter showed many of these sites in the area with recreational users setting up shop.
In stretches of a pipeline corridor, there were 20 or more trailers set up. And almost all of them brought their quads and ATVs out, further chewing up the already sensitive land.
“It’s a particular concern for all of us here with the ESRD, as well as industry — those lease sites were not made for camping and we do have concerns with the ATVs and the quads sitting on the pipelines,” said Barry Shellian, wildfire manager and information officer for Rocky Wildfire Management Area.
The more publicized issue is the garbage that guests leave behind.
The destruction of campsites by Albertans over the long weekend in the East Kootenays hit the national news on Tuesday. A number of campsites were left in complete disarray on Crown land along Lake Koocanusa. Piles of garbage, camping gear and beer bottles were left behind, and damage was done to the surrounding area. The bulk of the campers drove trucks with Alberta licence plates and many were identified as being from Calgary.
B.C. officials have said they noticed the uptick in such activities after Alberta started to crack down hard on it.
The Alberta West Country is no stranger to that kind of a mess. But this year was not as bad as the past.
In 2013, more than 100 campfires were left in some stage of burning; this year that number dropped to six.
The bigger concern now is what was being burned in the fires. Toxic materials, large appliances and furniture are still being used as fuel for the flames or being burned in a quick effort to clean up and not take garbage home.
There were also campsites that looked like a bomb went off, but authorities were often quickly alerted to these situations by social media users. Shellian considers this the next stage of their campaign.
“I personally have seen the very positive effects of social media for us, not only to deliver information, but to truly interact with the public,” he said. “It’s a way of creating community, creating friendships and creating an interactive message for people to speak with each other.”
This year, local partners — Clearwater County, ESRD, the oil industry and others — launched their Sasquatch campaign, with the theme “the Sasquatch welcomes people to our backyard and to use it with respect,” said Shellian.
“The Sasquatch always leaves no trace, he would never leave garbage, he would never quad in soft riparian areas and Sasquatch would never camp next to any type of oil and gas facility.”
Campers were provided with a soaker bag, literature and responsible visitors were rewarded for their diligence.
Following the weekend every year, a growing number of locals hit the West Country in cleanup mode.
“It used to be ‘I didn’t do it, I ain’t picking it up,’ ” said Livingston. “Now it’s ‘Oh my gosh, look at that mess, let’s stop before it gets strewn all over. …’
“It’s nice to see the hard work is paying off. People, it’s not like they didn’t understand you don’t leave your garbage on the ground, they were making a conscious decision to walk away from it. Now that attitude is changing a little bit.”
In all, Rocky Mountain House and Rimbey RCMP handed out approximately 750 tickets of all manner on the weekend, including 125 in a checkstop on Friday night. These tickets ranged from vehicle violations to alcohol, camping and off-roading infractions.
Most importantly, however, there were no fatalities or critical injuries requiring the aid of STARS.
“We’ve got a very educated public coming out now for the May long weekend,” said Rocky Mountain House RCMP Staff Sgt. Bill Laidlaw. “The bottom line is, there’s a lot of police officers around and the public that comes out, they’re typically well behaved and they have been for the last few years.”
Shellian acknowledges that while they have taken some positive steps, their work in the West Country is not finished.
“You can’t change the world in one weekend, but what we did see was a lot of positive change in social behaviour,” he said. “It’s a start.”